How to Forage and Use Purslane & Stinging Nettle: Two Super-Foods for Spring Foraging

Editor’s Note: This is an updated and revised edition for 2018.

Editor’s Note: Special Contribution by Donna

All good things are wild and free.” – Henry David Thoreau

1. Purslane

Purslane (portulaca) may be a new plant to some folks but I am sure that most gardeners have seen it growing wild around their cultivated garden plants. It loves freshly turned rich or sandy soil and, like the dandelion, people just seem to want to get rid of the “weed”.

I assure you, though; once you taste it you’ll be hooked. If you get to know this fast-growing, annual succulent plant, you’ll find that it is both delicious and nutritious and it will be welcomed into your garden.

purslane
Image Source

When my mother was a young girl, foraging in the North Carolina hills and rich bottom lands, purslane was a daily food source during its spring season. When she shared her knowledge of this particular plant with me years later, there was eagerness in her voice.

It’s interesting to note that purslane is often used to lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. At 97 years old, her lipid numbers are perfect. This might be a coincidence but I choose to believe her longevity and health might have something to do with her mainly foraged diet: all organic, wild, fresh picked, in season.

The only sweet they had was honey collected naturally from bee trees and one time it was harvested from between the eaves of their ox barn.

My hope is that after reading this article you will find a new appreciation for this unique, juicy plant and that you will make it a large part of your natural spring through summer diet. You’ll be healthier and happier for it!

Purslane (portulaca oleracea, pigweed, little hogweed, cat’s tongue verdolagas)

The purslane herb has reddish stems and fleshy, green leaves, almost like a jade plant. It is considered a succulent. The leaves are paddle-shaped and plump and a little mucilaginous—but nothing like okra! The flowers are small, bright yellow and hide amongst the leaves and only open in full sunlight.

The flowers appear about mid-July then a few weeks after that the seed pods pop out, filled with very many tiny black seeds. No wonder this plant is so prolific! You can collect the seeds to share. Purslane is actually being cultivated by gardeners as more and more people understand its health value and tasty versatile uses.

portulaca-oleracea

They are very easy to pull out of the soil by grasping the center of the plant where the root is attached and pulling slowly upwards. This way the entire plant comes out in one piece. The plant is increasingly being sold in health food stores, farmer’s markets, farm to fork restaurants and specialty supermarkets.

There is a difference between purchased and foraged seeds and plants. The foraged ones grow horizontally across the ground and spread out as much as 16” lying loosely on the ground and the purchased ones usually are more upright and are a bit larger. 

For my dime, I’ll stick with the wild variety but either is fine. It is easy to find seed sellers all over the internet. But if you visit a gardener friend they may to be happy to let you “weed” their garden of every purslane plant and seed pod. If they are aware of the purslane’s goodness that’s okay as there will be plenty to go around.

The Taste:

To me, the leaf has a lemony tang with a slight crunch that is pleasing and mild. It’s absolutely delicious! The part of the stem, closest to the leaves is tender and juicy. It’s tastier than iceberg or romaine lettuce. And it is more versatile and nutritious than either of those greens as well.

Some people compare it to spinach or watercress, and it can substitute for spinach in many recipes. Young, raw leaves and stems are tender and are delightfully different in salads and sandwiches. They can also be lightly steamed or stir-fried. Purslane’s high level of pectin thickens soups and stews.

Nutritional Value and Use:

It is good for our skin, urinary and digestive systems. It also has a perfect combination of antioxidants, omega 3 fatty acids, potassium (494 gm, which is more than a banana with 422 gm), riboflavin, vitamin C, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, iron, pectin and seven times more carotene than carrots!

And six times more vitamin E than spinach! Just the fact that it is a plant source of omega 3’s (known to lower cholesterol) and which we usually get from expensive fish oil is extraordinary! These facts alone make this plant a must have this spring and summer.

ALA (Alpha Lipoic Acid) is most commonly found in some plants and grass-fed meat and eggs. Artemis Simopoulos, co-author of The Omega Diet, says purslane is one of the richest known plant sources of ALA: It contains 15 times the amount found in most iceberg lettuce.

Earth News has this to say about Purslane:

“Omega-3’s are a class of polyunsaturated essential fatty acids. Your body cannot manufacture essential fatty acids, so you must get them from food. Unfortunately, the typical American diet contains too few omega-3s, a shortage that is linked to a barrage of illnesses including heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

In addition to ALA, other omega-3s include eicosapentaenoic (EPA) and docosahexaenoic (DHA) acids mostly found in aquatic plants and animals, especially oily fish. Nutritionists now think all forms of omega-3s need to be plentiful in our diets. Plants such as purslane may be part of the missing link to better nutrition.”

PET WARNING: Purslane contains soluble calcium oxalates, which are poisonous to cats, dogs and horses, according to the ASPCA. Cats that ingest part of the plant may drool, vomit, or show other signs of digestive stress such as diarrhea or bloody urine.

Foraged Wild Purslane, Horizontal Growth

Lift the sides of the plant up then hold the center and pull upward. The whole whorl will most likely come out of the ground at the same time. Can’t get any easier than that!

Purslane seeds take 7 to 10 days to germinate between 70 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Some growers say to sow seeds 1/4 to 1/2 inches deep directly in the garden.

I have also known of others who didn’t even cover the seeds, just sprinkled them liberally over newly turned soil and did nothing else and got an abundant crop! Since purslane seeds need light to germinate it makes more sense to me that they must stay on the surface of the soil. Spring is the best time to plant purslane from seed, after danger of frost is over.

If you decide to do this I would suggest that you plough a little extra area and scatter the seeds there instead of among the other crops where they often grow, otherwise it gets a little crowded. They will eventually spread, but what can you expect with 200,000 seeds per plant!

If you are using purslane cuttings, lay them on the ground where you plan on growing them. Water the stems and they should take root in the soil in a few days.

Cultivated Vertical Purslane

Purslane Seeds

Seeds of purslane have been known to stay viable for 40 years in the soil.

purslane-seeds

After a week or so, the yellow flowers give way to small, dark, pointed seed capsules that, when mature, break open and release an abundance of tiny, black seeds, each about the size of a grain of sand.

Purslane Seed Pods

Purslane is regularly consumed in salads, stir-fry and soups in Europe and Asia. I feel confident that more and more people are becoming aware of this tasty, vitamin and mineral packed weed and that it will quickly grow in acceptance in the U.S. diet. They are showing up in farmer’s markets, farm to fork restaurants and it seems that once people try them they are instantly won over.

Purslane seed pods
Image Source

 

I have a friend whose grandparents were raised in an American colony in Mexico in the early 1900’s. She mentioned to me that purslane, called “Verdolagas” in Mexico, has been a food source there for hundreds of years. She said they would eat it as a salad with avocado, tomatoes, cotija cheese, and chilies. That sounds good to me…minus the hot stuff.

Purslane Salad

Last year, since I collected an abundance of purslane, I decide to experiment with pickling some so we could enjoy it into the autumn and winter months. The results were mixed. As far as flavor it was great, but this year I will use younger stems.

purslane salad
Image Source

By the time I foraged these, it was later in the season and the stems were a little tough, completely edible but still, they would have been better if done earlier in the season when the stems were more succulent. I’ll also chop them more finely, almost like a relish.

The pickles have been good in chicken and egg salad. We have only one jar left and I’ve heard no complaints but I think there is room for improvement!

Pickled Purslane

pickled-purslane

Purslane Scrambled Eggs

Such an easy power-packed meal for breakfast, lunch or dinner. I like to sauté the onions and purslane, then add eggs and scramble together. Add S&P to taste.

purlane-scrambed-egg

You can add purslane leaves and some of the tender stems to a basil pesto recipe and the result is delectable. Next, let’s move on another incredible plant: the Stinging Nettle.

2. Stinging Nettle Plant

Since very early times, at least as far back as the first century Greek physician Galen, healers and peasants knew and recognized the healing constituents of Nettle. Stinging Nettle is probably the most well-known and widely used plant in the Nettle family.

Be aware that there are four plants in the Nettle family and all thrive in the eastern area of North America but I have seen the stinging Nettle as far south as Georgia near my mother’s home.

stinging nettle plants
Image Source

There is the Wood Nettle, Clearweed, False Nettle the Stinging Nettle. Both the Wood Nettle and the Stinging Nettle have the ability to sting and both are edible. Since I can’t go into each plant here I would suggest looking at http://identifythatplant.com/another-nettle/ . This is an excellent resource.

Before we get started let me address why I think this plant, even with the possible sting, is worth the trouble. More about treating a possible sting later.

  • It works well in the form of salves, creams and tinctures to reduce the pain of arthritic joints.
  • This plant makes a wonderful healing tea and as a pot herb, it excels in taste and health properties.
  • It decreases breathing challenges in cases of COPD and is anti-inflammatory, which is helpful for everyone since inflammation is the root cause of so many major health concerns.
  • It helps to control blood sugar in patients with diabetes. (If you have diabetes make SURE to speak with your doctor first before consuming any nettle, as your medication dose may need to be altered.
  • It’s good for wound healing, which is extra important in a crisis situation where no help is readily available.
  • It decreases water retention.
  • Helps with asthma.
  • It helps to treat diarrhea or even to prevent it in the first place.
  • Beneficial in treating urinary tract problems, including BPH (prostate problems) which we’ll discuss later in this article.
  • The nutritional benefits are off the charts in several areas.

So that’s just ten of the reasons I feel this plant is a superfood and a super medicine and why it is well worth it simply to wear protective clothing and gloves to avoid the sting and move on to collect a world of health benefits.

Nettle is an important plant that you want to have in your healing arsenal. Learning to find and use it can be a vital addition to your survival knowledge base. Here are a few of its other benefits.

Nutritional Benefits: Nettles are very high in iron, and are therefore another great cleansing food for the liver. They help ward off the sluggish feeling that comes on after short, dark winter days. If the plants you have found are kept trimmed they will yield a steady supply of tender young greens.

stinging-nettle

Nettle has more protein than most other plants, up to 35%, so it is important in life-sustaining scenarios. It can be applied topically to arthritic joints via cream and tinctures. Since I make and use them in this way I can verify that it works well, much better than over the counter creams for aches and pains. Using Nettle plants in your food reduces joint pain also.

Vitamin C and Stinging Nettle: The following fact is amazing. One medium orange (100 grams) has 52 mgs. of vitamin C. Compare this to 100 grams of nettle which contains 235 mgs of vitamin C! Is it worth it to forage for stinging nettle? You decide.

Like dandelion, nettles are another early spring delicacy. They do have differences: the main one is that Nettle should be cooked before eating. I have watched people eat them raw by bending the leaves so the nettle-like spikes are on the inside of the fold to me this is not a safe way to consume them, ever!

The nettle is almost as commonly harvested as dandelion and they are also referred to as a superfood for their wonderful restoring tonic effects. They are harvested April through May. The tender young leaves are a great addition to soups and stews, added at the end a few minutes before the pot is done.

Cooked nettles lose their sting. Always remember that nettles, especially ones at the end of the season, should be harvested with gloves. Wear long pants and long-sleeved shirt.

Where to Forage for Nettle and How to Make the Right ID

These plants prefer nitrogenous soils such as pasture land, woodlands, and cultivated ground and even around your backyard if you have a wooded area or pasture land nearby. Usually, they are not found as single plants. I have seen them spread out into areas of a few feet to sometimes as much as a twenty-foot patch.

LEAVES: This is a pretty distinctive appearing plant. The leaves are opposite each other on the stem and are slightly heart-shaped coming to a sharp point at the tip and are heavily toothed at the margins. The underside can have a muted purple-gray color covered with hairs. They are deeply veined.

stinging-nettle leaves

Sometimes a leaf can appear a little more oval shaped without the sharp point on the end. A forager should never rely on their memory alone to ID a plant, especially if it is a plant new to them. As usual, take along a foraging ID book with clear colored photos, not illustrations only. It is preferable to use a book that contains more than one photo of the plant and that the time of year is indicated.

Top and Underside of Stinging Nettle Leaf

STEMS: Again, the stems are covered with stiff spiky needle-like protrusions.

What Causes the Sting?

The nettle in very early spring is not going to sting as it lacks the nettles. When it is most tender and tasty the needles have not yet formed. However stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) has this name for a reason! When they are fully mature they contain an acid, which causes the stinging we feel when touching them.

top-of-nettle-leaf

The stiff, sharp hairs that cover the underside of the leaves and the stems act a lot like a hypodermic needle when your skin brushes against them. The chemical, formic acid and other chemicals, flows through the hollow tubes and causes a nasty stinging sensation and a rash. The sting and rash from the plant are painful but can be treated.

But it’s even better to, as mentioned before, to avoid exposure by using gloves and wearing long pants and long shirt sleeves when collecting the “stinging” nettle. Avoid even briefest touch of the plant to bare skin. If you take this simple precaution you won’t get a sting. If you get a sting you will soon know. Just follow these directions.

How to Treat the Sting (from wiki)

  1. Avoid touching the area at first. If possible, do not touch or rub the affected area for 10 minutes. Pour clean, cool water over the area without touching. Even though the pain can be intense during the first few minutes, by avoiding any touching or rubbing, you may prevent the pain from lasting for days. The chemical irritants from the plant can dry on the surface of the skin, and then they can be removed by soap and water. By avoiding any rubbing or touching at first, the chemicals are not pushed further into the skin.
  2. Use soap and water. Soap and water cleans the affected parts of the skin and removes the chemicals released by the plant that causes the pain, swelling, redness, and itching. In many cases, once the area is washed, the pain either goes away completely or is greatly reduced.
  3. Use a clean cloth. If you are not near soap or water, use a clean cloth to gently remove dirt and plant debris from the area until it can be more thoroughly cleaned.
  4. Apply tape. Lightly apply a strong tape, like duct tape, to the area involved, then remove the tape. This can help to remove any remaining fibers that may be lodged in the skin.
  5. Try a wax hair removal product. If the tape did not remove all the unwanted plant material from the skin, you can try using a wax hair remover. Apply a layer of the wax removal, let it dry for about 5 minutes, and then gently peel off the wax, taking the plant debris along with it.

As I mentioned earlier, the best protection against the sting is to wear protective clothing and gloves.

Making an Infusion Tea is Easy:

One of the easiest ways to leach the goodness from nettle or any herb is to make an infusion tea. It’s really just a strong tea that has been steeped or “infused” for 12 – 24 hours. This can be done in the sunshine and/or using very hot water. After it has steeped it will be a strong infusion.

tea-infusion

At the time of use I pour some of the infusion into a pot and add water to make it the strength we enjoy. The strained infusion is stored in a glass jar in the refrigerator and will be good for over a week. The tea will be strong and filtered water may be added to come to the strength you desire.

Tea Infusion

Leave about an inch or two of headspace to allow for swelling of the herbs. We don’t want any spillage. Place the lid on lightly. Don’t use any kind of plastic wrap over the top. When the steeping time is over, strain the liquid with a regular strainer placed over two layers of cheesecloth.

This removes those tiny bits that the strainer misses. Pour liquid into clean jar and store in the refrigerator. Dilute as desired. May sweeten with pure dried maple sugar, succanat, and honey or stevia leaf. The above infusion is just beginning its 12-24 hour steep. It will become much darker and fuller bodied.

tea

These are the herbs and berries in the above tea infusion along with dried stevia leaves and, dried stinging nettle, both of which I harvested last year. I decided to cut up a chunk of fresh ginger because it adds a little kick to your refreshingly healthy cup of tea, either iced in the summer or steamy in the colder months.

The array of mints in this one opens the nasal passages! The Hawthorn Berry is especially heart strengthening. The Mullein is the respiratory addition, and of course, you now know some of the benefits of stinging nettle leaves.

Dried Stinging Nettle

Wild foods are far more nutrient dense than the domesticated plants we eat most often. Nettle makes a delicious earthy tasting tea and when infused for 12 hours or more offers an amazing source of key minerals that many of us are lacking.

dried-stinging-nettle

As you ca see making an infusion is easy and the result is jammed packed with nutrients we need and as an added benefit they are in a very absorbable form.

Stinging Nettle Infusion: Simply take 4 cups of chopped nettle leaves (or any combination of herbs that go well together and add to a 1/2 gallon mason jar. Fill to the top with boiling filtered or other good water. Cover and wait 12+ hours. The liquid will be dark with chlorophyll.

This infusion benefits the blood vessels, hair and skin as well as fortifying and strengthening every system in the body! It is absolutely what every one of us needs after a winter of shipped in or otherwise processed foods.

There are even more reasons to use this health-promoting plant.

Using the Nettle Rhizome to Alleviate Symptoms of BPH

Attention men! You probably already know what that BPH is an enlargement of the prostate gland. As the enlargement increases there are symptoms such as urinary frequency, not the full emptying of the bladder, smaller urinary stream or stopping and starting, straining or difficulty passing urine and sometimes blood in the urine.

By the age of 60, 50% of men have this condition and the percentage continues to increase with age. Younger men also can have these symptoms, usually to a lesser degree.

There are at least three double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trials on human subjects showing that stinging nettle helps alleviate symptoms of BPH. That’s a big deal. It is herbal medicine, tested and tried.

There are pharmaceuticals for BPH but you don’t want to read the possible side-effects. The side effects of stinging nettle? Better overall health! Now any doctors reading this may take exception but the gold standard of double-blind studies on humans was applied and the results are in.

To drive the point home, a person close to me, diagnosed with BPH decided, to give nettle a try before taking the suggested pharmaceutical drug. His symptoms were gone in 4 days. That was almost 2 years ago.

On the follow-up visit, the doctor just rolled his eyes. To make sure all was well, the patient returned in 6 months to have a repeat test. Again, all was well. At first, he took a standardized extract of Nettle Root-Power in capsule form twice a day along with Saw Palmetto with Pygeum with food once a day.

After about 3 months he decreased that to half. During the foraging season, he likes the Nettle Root infusion tea. No follow up visits to the urologist have been needed.

Below find a good video which discusses Stinging and Wood Nettle Plants!

Stinging Nettle Soup

Yield: about four servings

  • 4 c. loosely packed stinging nettles
  • Olive oil for the pan
  • 2 small leeks or roughly chopped yellow onion, diced and rinsed thoroughly
  • 2 ribs celery, diced
  • 1 clove garlic, finely minced
  • 4 c. chicken stock – of course homemade is best if available
  • 1 small potato, such as Yukon Gold, peeled and diced into small cubes
  • Salt and pepper at taste

Instructions:

  1. Bring a large covered pot of water to a boil over high heat. Meanwhile, fill a large bowl with ice water and place a colander in your sink.
  2. Wearing gloves, pick the leaves and tender stems from your collection of stinging nettle. Discard the thicker stems.
  3. Boil the nettle leaves for one minute.
  4. Drain them in the colander and place them in the ice water.
  5. Over medium heat, warm the same pot that you used to boil the nettles. When it is hot, drizzle in a few turns of olive oil around the pan.
  6. When the oil is hot, add the leeks and celery and a bit of salt and pepper. Sauté until tender and taking on a touch of color, about five minutes.
  7. Add the garlic and stir for one minute.
  8. Add the chicken stock and the potatoes. Raise the heat and bring the soup to a light boil. Then lower the heat and simmer until the potatoes are quite tender about ten minutes.
  9. Squeeze out the moisture from the nettles and give them a rough chop. Add them to the soup. Simmer for a few more minutes.
  10. Taste the soup and adjust the seasoning if necessary.

Nettle Pesto

This pesto is a hit with my family and friends and provides an ongoing year-round healthy purslane use! 

nettle-pesto

Prep time:  10 min.

Total time:  10 min.

Yield: 2 Cups

Ingredients:

  • 3 Cups fresh nettle leaves
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled
  • ¾ Cup pine nuts or walnuts
  • ¼ Cup olive oil
  • ½ tsp. sea salt
  • 1 Tbsp. lemon juice
  • ¾ C parmesan cheese, shredded, if desired

 Instructions:

  1. Add washed nettles to a large pot of boiling water. Boil for only one minute.
  2. Pour cooked nettle through strainer or cheesecloth then gently squeeze the cloth to remove all water.
  3. Add nettles to a food processor or blender
  4. Next add the nuts, garlic cloves, olive oil, salt, lemon juice. Add cheese at this point if you desire.
  5. Pulse the machine till ingredients are smooth.
  6. Put pesto into a Mason jar and store in the refrigerator.

It is delicious spread on freshly made bread or toast.

Final Thoughts

Building a broader knowledge of the edible and/or medical values of herbs, oils and other natural health remedies can become an immeasurable advantage in times of emergency and disaster. But it can be a valuable, healthful skill to practice right now as you prepare for the future.

If you have had an experience with purslane or stinging nettle or another herb you’ve foraged, or if there is a special recipe or medicinal use that has worked well for you please share them in the comments below.

Blessings and Happy Spring Foraging, Donna


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  1. Interesting about the Purslane. I have seen it in my backyard and though I considered it an attractive “weed” I didn’t know that it was a great food as well. Now those plants are going to have to be wary if I show up.

    1. Bruce,
      When you try the purslane I think you’ll be hooked. In a salad, mixed with scrambled eggs, as the “green” element in a fruit smoothie or added to a stew pot they add such high vitamin/mineral content……..and the price is right! The money you save by foraging over time can be applied to a new prep you’ve been wanting or to increase your emergency food storage. Thanks for reading BDS.

    1. I agree 100% Jamie! Everyday Roots is a fantastic resource to keep handy. We’d all be healthier if we would make our homes and surroundings more pure by using natural products.
      I’m writing an article about a related subject right now….so stay tuned!
      Thanks for your supportive comments!

  2. Thank you for the wonderfully informative article! These are the types of articles that we all need to have access to in order be “re-educated” into a much more healthy and self sufficient lifestyle.

    Do you know of good sources for both types of seeds?

  3. Great article! I never realized that Purslane (Portulaca) was so useful. Are there any (non-foraged) varieties that a person could grow (to eat) from commercially available seeds if it’s not possible to forage in their area? Also, I really enjoyed reading your excellent description of all of the uses for Stinging Nettles. Coincidentally, I just finished watching a back episode of the BBC program “Wartime Kitchen and Garden” on YouTube in which Brenda Mott demonstrated cooking a World War II-era recipe that included Nettle leaves.

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