A PERSONAL BATTLE WITH AN UNBEATABLE FOE

Pick your battles—I’ve given and received this advice many times over the years. It’s generally a good bit of wisdom to follow, but I have failed miserably when it comes to one particular intruder in my life.

No, it’s not a person, group of people, or even a thing. It’s a particular weed species. Around our one acre piece of real estate I can tolerate a little quackgrass in the flower bed, a measureable amount of dandelions in the lawn, and the usual flush of lambsquarters in the garden. I can either live with or eliminate any of these invaders.

The weed that keeps me up at night scheming of ways to end its dominance in my life is purslane, Portulaca oleracea. Being in the business of telling other people how to control weeds only further drives this quest.

I am not the first to wage war on purslane. It is one of our oldest known plants. Native to India and Persia, this villain grows worldwide.

Purslane is a succulent, prostrate growing annual plant that usually doesn’t appear until mid-summer, after most desirable plants are well on their way to maturity. You can roto-till or hoe it out of a garden, but this merely makes the weed mad and only provides the caretaker short-term relief.

Any trace of stem or root left in or on the soil will establish a new plant. In a short period of time, what was a single plant will become a massive ground cover of multiple perpetrators.

In my study and personal war against this weed I’ve determined that water isn’t necessary for vigorous purslane growth. The plant can seemingly germinate and grow out of concrete; I don’t mean out of cracks in concrete, I mean out of concrete. I’ve learned that it thrives in gravel driveways, brick walkways and hard, compacted baseball fields devoid of any other signs of life. In a word: ruthless.

I never bought into the concept that plants express human emotions, but I sometimes hear laughing while tending the garden or walking the driveway.

People often ask how to control this vicious weed. I use a 3-step approach:

Step 1: Carefully hand pull individual plants out of the garden, patio, or driveway. Place plants in a sealed five gallon bucket.

Step 2: Dump contents of bucket in the middle of the road.

Step 3: Start car and drive back and forth over contents of bucket 15 to 20 times. Note: a Sherman tank may be used as a substitute for the car.

If this approach seems a bit extreme, there are several herbicides that will get purslane’s attention. However, because the weed is such a late bloomer there are often desirable plants in close proximity. If herbicide application isn’t feasible, then hand pulling or hoeing is the next best option; dispose, burn, or take all plant parts over to the neighbor’s place.

Mulching is another means of dealing with purslane. Though I have not tried this personally, I would think about a 3-foot depth should do the trick.

Purslane is a prolific seed producer and like all annuals some form of control before seed production will be beneficial for the long haul. Of course once this horse has left the barn, there is usually enough seed in the soil bank to perpetuate the species for generations to come. One plant produces thousands of seeds. Purslane seed has been shown to remain viable in the soil for at least 40 years.

My battle with purslane has become a yearly ritual with the same sort of relationship that Wile E. Coyote had with The Roadrunner. I’ve learned to embrace the challenge knowing full well it’s not a war I can win. Like some, I haven’t given up. Those who have are easy to identify. They tout purslane as an excellent ground cover. I’ve heard that certain retailers sell the plants right along with their marigolds and begonias.

Others who have surrendered like to promote purslane as a culinary delight; the “if you can’t beat ‘em then eat ‘em” approach. Purslane is described as containing an array of vitamins and Omega-3 fatty acids. I’m told that it tastes like watercress or spinach with a tint of lemon. Author Henry Thoreau even wrote of eating purslane.

There is something diabolically appealing to eating this plant, but that would mean giving-up the good fight. No, as this growing season winds down I will spend the winter scheming my next plan of attack. Purslane seeds will undoubtedly spend their winter laughing.

purslane-garden purslane-gravel
Soil, gravel, or concrete….this villian grows anywhere.

 

Mike Rankin, Crops and Soils Agent, UW Extension-Fond du Lac County

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