Alphabet City Rooftop Garden Diary: Purslane Invaders!

Planting things I shouldn't be able to grow has been my modus operandi since my wife and I moved into our Alphabet City apartment three years ago. We have some rooftop access and over the years we've grown some pretty cool things. When it comes to gardening, I'm a believer in the power of plant life and the silence of being right. Someone tells you that an apple tree will never make it through the winter? How about a bushel of apples and a fall apple crumble the next year? Okra can't grown in Manhattan? How about trying some I grew, fried? Tomatoes, watermelon, cucumber? Sure. Lettuce, dandelion leaves, broccoli, and cauliflower? No problem!

Sometimes things don't stick. I'm having trouble with peaches and cherries, and after her 2012 piece, Italy to Brooklyn, Fig by Fig, Melissa Clark inspired me to try getting figs to take off, but that's been a lot tougher than I've hoped. (I still can't figure this out, Melissa — can you come over and let me know what you think I'm doing wrong?) But hey, you can't plant 'em all. Right? And the problem with the silence of being right (when you are) is that when you plant in planters, the persistence of plant life can bite back. Case in point, this year's purslane invasion.

This isn't the first time an alien invader has threatened our rooftop garden. Two years running there was pigeon sex. Lots of cooing and territoriality. The cooing was followed by a baby pigeon. The second year? A failed egg, sadness, and a fake owl that we bought to scare them away from the roost. There was the mistake that is mint — the first thing that comes up every year. If you don't mind mint constantly as soon as it sprouts, well, that's why there's mint tea, mint sauce, mint candy... you get the idea.

Then there was last summer's invasion fiasco: the squirrel invader. He rooted around in the dirt, broke my apple tree branch (I tied it back together and it seems to have mended, but I don't dare untie it), and devoured my sunflowers, the eventual bait for his demise — or capture, rather. I put his wounded leftovers in a trap and found him very mad one summer morning, screeching at me, and shocked for having been trapped after messing with the plants I'd been faithfully watering every few days for weeks.

Everything you read about squirrels tells you that if you don't want them to return, you have to either kill them or take them over a body of water. I felt mad, but squirrel blood isn't something I want on my soul. So we rented a Zipcar and dropped him off in McCarren Park in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to go screw with the hipsters. Last I heard, he was foraging like a relocated Danish madman and had started an artisanal caramel peanut candy company in Greenpoint called "Egern Møtrik Lynlåse." Eater reports that Necco is suing over a Squirrel Nut Zippers trademark violation.

Okay, I'm made the last part up. Whatever. That squirrel knows I'm smarter than him, and now, he's Brooklyn's problem.[pullquote:right]

My problem in 2015 isn't squirrels, mint, or pigeons. It's purslane! 

I planted just a few rows of it in one planter last year. There wasn't much to speak of. This year? It's all over the place. Two planters are full of it. One planter it has taken root in has joined another baobab: purple shiso. Shiso was contained to a pot last year. How it ended up in a planter I have no idea. But now we have a cucumber plant whose tendrils are hanging onto a monster purple shiso under which is, you guessed it, a purslane underbrush. I maybe should have done a little more research about who to put where, but in fairness, I didn't plant anything in the planter in question this year except the cuke. 

The problem with all the purslane is that my wife has been trying to grow a lettuce bed. Here's where gardening imitates a relationship. Maybe? The purslane I planted in a different planter last year has taken over her lettuce bed. Not my fault, right? Tell that to her after she spent an hour plucking purslane. And what to do with a huge bowl of it, anyway? 

"What is purslane," you ask?

According to the Chicago Tribune, the U.S. Department of Agriculture classifies purslane as a "noxious weed," but as far as science is concerned, purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is an annual succulent in the family Portulacaceae, and it's said to be able to reach a height of about 16 inches. If you look it up, you'll find descriptions saying it "grows in many countries because it thrives in poor soil."

Yeah, that's Internet for "It's going to take over your entire garden. Look out."

OK, OK. So what does it look like and what can you use it for? There's a pinkish stem, and flat, ovoid leaves that taper toward the stem. The leaves are a bit lemony and juicy when bitten into, the stems occasionally too — when they're young. Reports I read say they're inedible when the plant matures more than a few weeks.

This weed also happens (supposedly) to be a "superfood" high in heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids and beta carotene. It also has some history in the States. According to an article in the Chicago Tribune that cites, Martha Washington had a recipe for pickled "pursland" in the Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats, a collection of family recipes she received as a wedding gift. Men's Health says that according to one study, it has the highest amount of heart-healthy omega-3 fats of any edible plant. "The scientists also report that this herb has 10 to 20 times more melatonin — an antioxidant that may inhibit cancer growth — than any other fruit or vegetable tested."

And here my wife was getting all mad at me for planting a weed when really I was just trying to protect us FROM CANCER. 

You buying that? No? OK. Won't try it later, then. 

There are plenty of purslane recipes worth testing, but my first thoughts went to using our purslane in a salad. Given the amount we had, it became salad. A few slices of yellow heirloom tomato, a nice Dijon mustard-based vinaigrette, about 30 minutes of cleaning the purslane over and over in the salad spinner (I can't stress how much dirt these things pick up if you're plucking them from the soil by the root), and cutting the roots off, and presto. I'll give you the recipe for this simple purslane salad, but really, it's just clean the purslane and add salad dressing. 

If not cliché, that's not exactly inventive. Just so happens I wasn't the only one harvesting purslane at that exact moment, though (what?!). My Twitter friend Ruben Garcia was prepping his own purslane for carne de puerco con verdolagas.

Ruben, we need that recipe. 

I love the Internet.

Us? We cut off the roots, tossed the more interesting edible tops in a mustard vinaigrette with some golden tomatoes, and two hours later there's a salad. Would I buy purslane at the store or farmers market if I saw it? Yes, because it's tasty and I wouldn't have to clean it. Would I plant it again or seek it out? No.

As for the two hours, I'm only half kidding. Nobody said you grow a garden for everyday practicality. But gardening does make for some interesting dinners. And now that I know we're going to pickle a whole bunch of purslane and try to see if we can find Martha Washington's recipe, what to do with all that shiso?