Wild Purslanes: A Collector’s Review

In one of my research collaborations, I came across an article reproducing Henry Ridley’s Travels to Christmas Island in 1994 and his botanical explorations. Ridley was an English botanist, geologist and naturalist who lived much of his life In Singapore and was the first director of the Singapore Botanical Gardens from 1888 to 1911. From a research perspective, since Ridley was based in Singapore and often travelled / recorded the flora and fauna of the Malay Peninsular, much of Singapore’s understanding of plants during that period was shaped by his thinking.

Back to purslanes.

In 1994, Ridley, accompanied by plant collectors, taxidermists and a pigeon catcher (a Chinese “coolie” who caught green imperial pigeons as food for the explorers) travelled to Christmas Island. During part of their expedition, they came across a waterfall with a peculiar old Javanese woman washing a vegetable.

Was is that, Ridley asked. Sepit, she replied.

She claimed it was delicious when cooked and that she was great at cooking it.

Ridley, being curious, collected a quantity and had it boiled. He recorded that it was “indeed excellent, tasting like something between French beans and spinach. It requires however a good deal of washing… as otherwise it is very saline” (spoiler: it does not taste the slightest bit like French beans and spinach).

Ridley then sailed back to Singapore and documented the herb as sea purslane.

This extract peaked my interest and I decided I had to obtain some samples for growing (which can be easily done through stem propagation). Thankfully I had contacts which sold several pots of these plants. Having propagated them for close to a year now and tried them boiled, I can attest that they do not in fact taste like a mix between French beans and spinach. Rather like saltier ice plants but with a “tongue-biting” finish and a slightly waxy succulent texture. It is one of the plants in my garden which requires dedicated care, namely to be fed sea salt every month. It is thriving in a small planter box under shade although it can tolerate full sun and sandy nutrient depleted soil. It is a queer weed with a life of its own, it suffers from over-attention and seems to repel a majority of pests (no doubt due to its saltiness). In many ways, I related to this plant. So it was kept as a prized collectable hidden away in my nursery.

Then in 2019, during seed exchanges with farmers I mentioned I was looking for wild purslane. The type that grows in the cleared spaces of the farm, pavements, construction sites – eye-brows were raised and many claimed that they had abundant supply and I could come and take as much as I liked. After collecting the various samples, I regrew them and the results were unsatisfactory. The leaves were often too watered down, tasting “marshy” or “swampy”, even for wild uncultivated plants, their environment shapes the way genetics develop. So I decided to request for cultivated “wild” purslanes from an American friend who grows this herb for restaurants.

Two weeks into sowing the seeds, came 4 true leaves, and then 6 and soon, I had a patch of them under my sunflowers. After the rains, I stooped down to collect a sprig for tasting and was pleasantly surprised. It had a front-forward refreshing taste, with a middle hit of lemons & sorrel ending with mineraly notes that remind you of its “wildness”. You wouldn’t guess that it was a weed, and the mineral notes are so light that they have to be actively considered or risk going undetected. This was a winning seed, which I sneakily offered on the seed catalogue for a few moments until they were completely sold out. A few discerning home growers picked it out, good on you.

These purslanes being native to SE Asia (broadly) are largely missing from our diets despite thriving in Singapore’s climate. Wild purslane also contains high amounts of omega 3 fatty acids, Vitamin A and C. It is considered to be a health food, the reasons why we have excluded this from our cooking is unclear. One would have thought that the move towards the locavore diet would have led to increased production of these hardy plants (or at least attempts at selecting quality seeds for them by local farmers). Further, as I’ve tried to demonstrate from the introductory background story, these plants are steeped in cultural history. If you recall, Ridley had asked the old Javanese woman what the herb was and she said “Sepit” (traditional name for sea purslane), she even mentioned that she was a great cook of the herb yet nothing on her cooking methods was recorded. Instead, Ridley boiled the vegetable and associated the taste of western vegetables (French beans and spinach) with the sea purslane, which I have sought to emphasise is inaccurate (having tasted it myself).

Forgotten plants are forgotten recipes are forgotten cultures.

& growing purslane has been my gentle resistance.

Yours always,

J.

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