Gardening: Summer salad days

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MAT COWARD explains how to grow a tasty crop of purslane


SUMMER purslane is a very useful and unusual salad plant — and it’s easy to grow.


There’s just one obstacle to get past first, and that’s the name.


Portulaca oleracea may appear in seed catalogues as purslane, summer purslane, common purslane or green purslane.


Just to complicate matters, there’s also a golden purslane, which is the same species but with yellowish rather than green foliage.


It’s attractive, but it doesn’t seem to grow quite as well in this country as the green form does.


What we’re not looking for today is “winter purslane,” also known as miner’s lettuce or Claytonia — which is a completely different plant.


Purslane was one of this country’s chief salad ingredients for centuries, and is still popular in several countries, especially France and Turkey.


It’s largely fallen from use over here, though it’s hard to see why.


It thrives in summer with none of the problems of thirstier vegetables, such as lettuce, can be grown in containers or in the open ground, and used as a cut-and-come-again crop, with several harvests from one sowing.


Nutritionists are keen on purslane, for its high vitamin C and omega-3 content.


It’s small, low-growing, fleshy leaves and stalks are succulent and crisp, with a slightly sharp taste.


An odd feature of this plant is that its flavour varies considerably depending on the time it’s picked, as the level of tangy malic acid in the leaves declines during the day.


It can be lightly cooked as a side vegetable or in soups, especially as it gets older and a bit tougher, but it’s at its best eaten raw and fresh. It doesn’t store for long after picking. Traditionally, it has also been pickled in sweet vinegar.


You can sow it any time from May to August, but June is the ideal month.


Either sow it directly in soil or tubs, or start it off in trays for later planting out.


Once the seedlings are well established, thin them to about six inches apart. The thinnings are of course edible.


Purslane is perfect for filling up any dry, thin patches of soil where little else will succeed in hot weather. But if you can give it a reasonably decent soil and water it occasionally, you’ll get a much bigger crop.


Try to put it in a sunny spot, sheltered from the wind. The only ground condition it won’t tolerate is waterlogging.


Harvesting begins after about six weeks, when the purslane is a few inches tall. Small rosettes of leaves form at the end of each stalk, and the more of these you cut off to eat, the more the plant will produce. Remove any flowers that appear.


You should be able to keep cropping it until the autumn frosts kill it — perhaps a little longer if you cover it with cloches in late summer.


If it runs to seed before then, try cutting it down to about two inches high and with luck it will regrow.

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