“They called it a weed, but it was only a thistle. If thistles were more useful than wheat, we should call them a crop and the wheat would be a weed.” -from The Harvest, L. H. Bailey (The Background Books, 1927)
“Little children love the dandelions: why may not we? Love the things at hand; and love intensely.” -L. H. Bailey, from Garden-Making (The Garden-Craft Series, 1898)
Purslane had found a couple of our interpretive garden plots when I visited yesterday, and by the end of the same day she had been “weeded” out. But if she finds her way back, especially to the Edible Wild Plant Discovery Plot where we planted dandelions at the Groundbreaking, I’d vote to let her stay.
Everyone recognizes purslane, or “pusley,” although few of us know the plant by name. If you’re in the Midwest — I can at least testify for southwest Michigan and central Iowa — you’ve likely seen it growing through the cracks in the sidewalk. It was recently introduced to me by my girlfriend, Rachael, who read about it on our friend Liz Clift’s food blog, Flexitarian Writer. This common weed is edible — and tastes good in her warm purslane salad with garlic and raisins (her recipe, which I have tried and recommend, is available on her blog here).
So I know purslane’s a weed; I know it will grow wherever it can around here (to the disdain of some lawn-tenders); but when I saw it growing at our garden I was touched, and when I began looking it up in the Museum‘s reading library I actually became a little emotional, truth be told. It shows up in Bailey’s Hortus (the first-ever dictionary of horticulture), The Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture, Practical Gardener’s Handbook, The Principles of Vegetable-Gardening (of the Rural Science Series), and Ada Georgia’s Manual of Weeds (edited by Bailey in the Rural Manuals series). In the Cyclopedia, which includes entries from many authors that Bailey brought together, the purslane entry was written by Bailey himself. He clearly knew about the plant in a way that few horticulturalists probably cared to, but as he notes there and in Vegetable-Gardening, this plant was indeed under cultivation as a potherb. The fact that the humble herb may have been more popular among poorer rural farmers than among the scientific establishment did not make it less important to Bailey, and in the full two pages in The Principles of Vegetable-Gardening dedicated to the plant he never refers to it as a “weed.”
Now I see purslane everywhere, and it registers love. Who knew I’d ever feel actual affection for this common weed? Portuláca oleràcea, as the Cyclopedia names it for me; a relative of Portuláca grandiflora, the flowering rose moss of many brilliant colors that demands little in the way of growing conditions, but gives such a great show in sunny weather; an old friend who I’ve grown with my whole life, seen daily on the street, but never known by name. Pick one that hasn’t been sprayed by pesticides, and raw it is “slightly lemony, slightly salty,” as Liz describes it. I think a potted P. oleràcea might do well in my kitchen when I return to Ames in the fall, and maybe some rose moss could be added to the side garden; we’ll see. The lucky students at North Shore will grow up better having known this friend by name, I’m sure.
Lastly, before I sign out, I want to send a shout-out to the South Haven Public Library. We didn’t have a copy ofThe Practical Gardener’s Handbook until they recently donated their full collection of Bailey books to the museum — about half of which had been signed by Bailey. What a great partnership, and how wonderful that South Haven’s public holdings of Bailey’s writings may now all be accessed in one central location.