When It Comes to the Neighborhood, Stays with You Forever: Generous-Hearted Purslane

Common purslane, Portulaca oleracea, is a member of the Portulacaceae family with more than 120 different species found in that family.[1] It is also known as pigweed, fatweed, pusle, and little hogweed, is an annual succulent herb in the family Portulacaceae that is found in most corners of the globe.[2] Purslane was one of the most widespread plants in the world since distant times.

Purslane / Portulaca Oleracea / Semizotu.

Purslane / Portulaca Oleracea / Semizotu.

Purslane is a native of Persia where it was used over 2,000 years ago.[1] It was introduced to North America from India and Persia.[2] The Arabs in the Middle Ages called it baqla hamqa, which means “mad” or “crazy vegetable” because of the fact that its branches spread over the ground without any control. In Spanish, names such as verdilacas, yerba aurato and yerba orate are known (which again mean “crazy herb”).[3]

Nowadays it is distributed over the hot temperate zones of a great part of the world. Together with other species of the genus it occurs as a weed in the majority of tropical and subtropical countries.[4] The purslane is suitable for light (sandy) and medium (loamy) soils and prefers well-drained soil. It requires a moist light rich well-drained soil in a sunny position. Plants will not produce good quality leaves when growing in dry conditions. The soil should have soil pH of 5.5 to 7.[5]

Purslane flowers grow at the tips of the fat stems from late spring through late summer. The flowers typically open from mid-morning to early afternoon on hot, sunny days. Flowering takes place from May through September.[6] 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. [7] Seeds are tiny, less than 1/25 of an inch (1 mm) in diameter, circular to egg shaped, flattened, and brown to black with a white point of attachment. Numerous seeds are produced.[8]

Common purslane is edible, with a sweet, yet acid-like flavor. It has been cultivated in India and the Middle East and has been popular in Europe since the Middle Ages.[9]  It can grow alongside roads, in crop fields, gardens, vineyards and orchards, in construction sites and other disturbed areas.

It was categorized in the Mediterranean countries of the Near East and central Asia as a weed and vegetable. For Istanbul and Turkey, due to its suitable conditions and also its acceptance as something edible, purslane has an important place. Therefore, not surprisingly, in our field trips for this class, at every functioning garden in Yedikule and walled-city, we saw  huge amounts of purslanes.

Purslane From Sources[10]

Today, purslane is known to be antibacterial, antiscorbutic, depurative, diuretic and febrifuge. The leaves are a very rich source of omega-3 fatty acids which prevents heart attacks and strengthens the immune system.[11] How about before? Via looking at some sources the way it was used and its importance can be discussed.

It is mentioned in the “Natural History” of Pliny as one of the vegetables used by the Romans. Pliny, or Gaius Plinius Secundus, usually referred to as Pliny the Elder, was a Roman living about 23-79 A.D. [12] Also, one of the richest sources that can be used is the Geoponika since it is referencing other sources. In Geoponika, Purslane was mentioned a few times for its different usages. Taken from Varro, it is said that some vines fruit normally but not their grapes before they have swollen and ripened. These should be cured with purslane juice.[13] From there we can see that there is something called purslane juice. Cited from Demokritos, in order to make pomegranates bear plentiful fruit suggests to grind purslane and spurge together finely and smear around the base of the trunk.[14] Africanus proposes for making all trees fruit more heavily rubbing purslane and spurge, mixing and well pounding together, around the trunk is useful.[15] Paxamos claims purslane is applied as a poultice, cures erysipelas. The leaf, placed under the tongue, makes one less thirsty and for particular treatments for poultry one may treats the eyes of fowl by bathing the outer eye with human milk or with purslane juice.[16] According to Apsyrtos, in a case if a horse is feverish and thin from overwork, it is necessary to give- for three days or more, until healthy- a mixture of one kotyle goat’s milk, one metron frumenty, half a kotyle olive oil, 4 eggs, juice of pounded purslane.[17]

While searching from the Internet I found this site about the sources mentioning purslane in some detail which I found very valuable and would like to take a part of it as a long quote here: “Columela writes in his poem on the garden: “Already the juicy purslane covers the dry beds”; and in Los doce libros de agricultura: “Leafy purslane appeases the plot’s thirst” (Book X); Paladio refers to it exclusively because of its mucilaginous, medicinal and veterinary properties. Similar references are found in Kastos, taking up the Byzantine tradition. The writers of oriental and Arabic treatises concerned themselves most with this vegetable. Ibn Wahsiyya describes its cultivation in the Near East, presenting it as a summer crop. Most of the Hispano-Arab agronomists deal with this plant. Arib (tenth century) mentions it in his Calendario agricola. Al Zahrawi and Ibn Hayyay (eleventh century) also mention it. Ibn Bassal (eleventh century) deals extensively with its cultivation, already recognizing a certain intraspecific variability, setting out its temperature and water requirements (summer cultivation and irrigation or vegetable garden), drawing up a sowing calendar which extends from March to August and demonstrating the practice of two basic cultivation periods, depending on whether the aim is to produce seed or to produce for human consumption. Sowing quantities and manuring and irrigation requirements also appear and are dealt with in great detail by the author. Ibn Wafid (Hispano-Arab agronomist of the eleventh and twelfth centuries) mentions it under the names baqla hamqa’ and missita. Ibn al-Awwam, in his Kitab al-Filaha, recalls that it is mentioned by almost all the Arab authors and refers to different varieties. He uses the adjectives “mild”, “vain” and “blessed”.[18]

Purslane Trivia

Through the research I also learned that the thing I know as semizotu (purslane) has different names. For instance in Mersin it is called tömeken, in Elazığ, Urfa and most of the Aegean cities it is called pirpirim, in Adana it is soğukluk, in Malatya it is known as pırpır, in Karaman, the name is töymakan, around Tunceli it is perper and in some places around Mediterranean it is tohumeken. Some of the names are different because they are wild variations of purslane that we have in Istanbul, but it turns out the names are also used interchangeable at some point.

Especially for the Aegean region, Purslane is known to be the most important member of the dining tables. It is something cultural. As a sign, there is even a well-known folk song mentioning the purslane. It is a song attributed to Aegean cities of Balıkesir and Çanakkale: “Bahçelerde pirpirim, yandım Ayşem / Hasta oldum yatarım, yandım Ayşem / Hekim, doktor istemem, yandım Ayşem / Sevdiğimi getirin, yandım Ayşem…”[19]

My relationship with semizotu is a long and very intense one thanks to my mother’s “we should eat some healthy things” attitude. The semizotu salad made with yoghurt is a loyal member of our dinner tables. Also, semizotu is something like spinach for Turkish people. Even the recipes for the way they are cooked are very similar. One can make a salad out of it with or without yoghurt, or use it as an ingredient for börek or poğaça (roughly translated as pastry), it can be the main ingredient of soup or part of a vegetable soup. Moreover, of course, there is a vegetable dish made out of it that the ingredients can change according to cook’s wish or the equipments present at the moment of preparing it.

Purslane Recipe

“Purslane is a pleasant salad herb, and excellent for scorbutic troubles.  The succulent leaves and young shoots are cooling in spring salads, the older shoots are used as a pot-herb, and the thick stems of plants that have run to seed are pickled in salt and vinegar to form winter salads.”[20] 

At this point, I would like to add one of the delicious salad recipes that can be made with Purslane.

Purslane Salad with Strawberries and Cheese.

One bunch of Purslane (it is sold as bunches in Istanbul)

10-15 strawberries

30 gr. white cheese

2 tbsp olive-oil

3 tbsp pomegranate syrup

Half a glass of lemon squash


Clean the purslane and wash it with strawberries. Cut the non-leaved parts and separate, then chop rest of the material and put it in a bowl. Cut the strawberries in the half and dice the cheese. Then add them to the bowl along with the walnuts which should be also cut in the half or even smaller. Add the olive oil with the lemon juice. Mix all the ingredients. Put them in a salad bowl and before you serve add the pomegranate syrup. Voila!

Since it is not the season for strawberry I had to add the most accurate picture I could find. Photo courtesy http://www.egedentarifler.com/2014/07/cilekli-ve-peynirli-semizotu-salatas.html

Since it is not the season for strawberries I had to add the most accurate picture I could find. Photo courtesy http://www.egedentarifler.com/2014/07/cilekli-ve-peynirli-semizotu-salatas.html

P.s: You should prepare the salad not long before you serve it since the strawberries would be ruined otherwise. And also if you plan to serve it after some time, you should not add the lemon and olive-oil until the last minute.



[1] Accessed August 4, 2014. http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn7461.html

[2] “Genetic improvement of Purslane (Portulaca oleracea L.) and its future prospects.” Accessed August 4, 2014. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25085039

[3] James M. Stephens,”Purslane – Portulaca oleracea L.” Accessed August 4, 2014. http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/mv118

[4] Richard Hoyt, “Purslane Plant Care” Accessed August 4, 2014. http://homeguides.sfgate.com/purslane-plant-care-37723.html

[5] Kathy Griffiths, “Purslane”  Accessed August 4, 2014. http://www.herballegacy.com/Griffiths_History.html

[6] Ibid.

[7] Richard Hoyt, “Purslane Plant Care” Accessed August 4, 2014. http://homeguides.sfgate.com/purslane-plant-care-37723.html

[8] Accessed August 4, 2014. http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/WEEDS/purslane.html

[9] Frances Robinson, “Power-Packed Purslane” Accessed August 4, 2014. http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/power-packed-purslane-zmaz05amzsel.aspx#ixzz39T9Vg6T2

[10] Accessed August 4, 2014. http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/WEEDS/purslane.html

[11] Accessed August 4, 2014. http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn7461.html

[12] For further information about Purslane’s ancient and modern sources see. http://www.herballegacy.com/Griffiths_Bibliography.html

[13] “Purslane (Portulaca)” Accessed August 4, 2014. http://www.ediblewildfood.com/purslane.aspx

[14] Helen Roca-Garcia, “Weeds: A Link with the Past” Accessed August 4, 2014. http://arnoldia.arboretum.harvard.edu/pdf/articles/1970-30-3-weeds-a-link-with-the-past-purslane.pdf

[15] Bassus Cassianus. “Geoponika: Farm Work: A Modern Translation of the Roman and Byzantine Farming Handbook.” (Totnes, Devon: Prospect Books, 2011), 143.

[16] Ibid., 214.

[17] Ibid., 231.

[18] Ibid., 266 and 289.

[19] Ibid., 310.

[20] “Purslane: Proprieties, uses and cultivation.” Accessed August 4, 2014. http://www.mdidea.com/products/new/new03304.html

[21] Translation can be like: “Purslane in the gardens, oh my Ayşe / I feel sick, resting, oh my Ayşe / I don’t want a physician or doctor, oh my Ayşe / Bring me my beloved, oh my Ayşe…” http://sarkilarnotalar.blogspot.com.tr/2011/11/karyolamin-demiri-yandim-aysem.html Also, you can listen a version of it from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZJm1KIgy13Q

[22] Kathy Griffiths, “Purslane”  Accessed August 4, 2014. http://www.herballegacy.com/Griffiths_History.html


Surviving the Surviving Sources.

One of the biggest challenges of a historian is to construct the past as reliable as possible with the help of available sources of every kind; written, visual etc. It is not an easy thing simply because the sources you have in hand, if you lucky enough to have them; could not be necessarily written on the matter you are searching for, but still, there can be things derived from the content. Thus, even the research for the sources should be very broad in order not to miss out anything.

For instance, to create a historical narrative describing the agricultural past of the walled city, Constantinople, there are important sources which were not actually prepared for depicting the agricultural past of the city specifically but still can be examined having that thought in mind. Due to city’s past, we have the Byzantine and the Ottoman sources. The sources that will be considered here are Byzantine Typica and Geoponica along with the Ottoman Surveys of Istanbul in 1455 and in 1734/35.

Typica is a source that gives information on the regulations of life in monasteries. There are some surviving typica from Constantinople’s institutions. For this study, we have the typicon of the Convent of Sts. Kosmas and Damian, Monastery of St. Mamas and the Convent of Lips. They were all prepared to give an insight about the ancient Byzantine monastic life and habits. However, as part of the topic, looking at diets of the monks, the agricultural land owned by the monastery or the topography of both that agricultural land and the region where the monastery is located some information can be derived about the agricultural features.

Then, there is the Geoponica, which is a Byzantine Greek farming manual of the 10th century AD. It is dedicated to the Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus.[1] It is a collection of twenty-books, each one of them gives different information on different issues and techniques such as stars, agriculture, vine cultivation and making, Olives, animals and insects that are harmful for plants, birds, horses, donkeys, breeding, fish etc. Thus, the Geoponica includes all parts and issues of “agricultural” information.

The Ottoman sources that can be used for the purposes of creating the agricultural life are the surveys. There are two examples, from 1455 and 1734/35. Their purpose is obvious from their titles, yet, those surveys shows the dwellings of bostancis (gardeners), locations of vineyards and gardens, churches or endowments which would lead one to valuable information about the agricultural life of the city. Also, having same kind of source from different centuries would help to see the change and continuity through time about the agriculture due to the option of making a comparison about the same matters.

1. Typikon of Athanasios Philanthropenos for the Monastery of St. Mamas in Constantinople

There is a part mentioning the people responsible of the kitchen.  Another part talks about the diet of the monks. Then in the section where financial administration where we can learn there is a treasurer. The author mentions one of the most important income sources are the donations of landed property. I think, this source is also important for the researcher to learn about the possibility of other sources, like for instance when the author talks about the duties of the treasurer of nomismata he says the treasurer needs to keep the record and listing of monetary income and expenditure, thus, if the treasurer acted accordingly, there is a possibility of finding such a source which also can give very valuable information on the subject of our research.

Especially the detailed menu of the Lent, for the each day of the week, is very important in order to see the existing food of the time.  Giving the rule for every man to eat the same amount and same things also gives a clue about the expenditures and the amount of the food provided for the monastery.

2. Typikon of Theodora Palaiologina for the Convent of Lips in Constantinople

Similarly, the diet of the nuns is described in this Typica, especially it is recommended that fresh legumes should be eaten and they should be in season. The information on the endowed land around Constantinople by the empress for the foundation gives some clues since it includes vineyards, olive groves, mills etc. The salary of the priests which was paid in gold coins and grain, wheat, barley and wine is significant about the value of those.

Also, the author mentions the inventory of the property and the harvests along with possible foreign attacks to the property. And then he talks about his estates in a rather detailed way which is very valuable information for determining the amount and what kind of produce is possible. He talks about the revenues from those lands and their distribution. Especially, towards the end of the manual, he mentions the entire property owned by the convent inside Constantinople.

3. Typikon of Theodora Palaiologina for the Convent of Sts. Kosmas and Damian in Constantinople

In this very short Typikon, which is connected to the Lips’ typikon there is again list of the things convent owned. Among them, there are the arable lands inside and outside of the city; vineyards, gardens with peasants and also the payments are again with gold pieces, barley, wheat and wine.

4. The Geoponica

Especially in the “Book 12” which is concerned with many important issues as what is planted out month by month in the latitude of Constantinople is a gem for our intentions to learn and create a historical narrative about the agricultural past of the walled city. That information would compose an idea about the seasonal, even monthly activities of agricultural production.

There is the part where the ways of vegetable growing is discussed to achieve fertile plants which gives clues about the knowledge those people had on the issue. Another thing is solving problems like the caterpillar issue. There are some tactics in order to deal with the issues that can be harmful for vegetables and trees.

Also, the herbs and their medical uses are mentioned in the texts. We can learn about the importance of a certain type of vegetable through the text which also can give some explanations on the need or the demand of that vegetable like the lettuce. The recipes can help us to have some indications on the diet of the people, especially realizing the way they consume things. Also, especially via seeing the beliefs of the people on the effect of something whether it known to be true or false today, I think this source would help to read the reasons behind products that were planted to the gardens of the people, or to see the trends of those products like garlic and onion. It also gives information about months which certain flowers can grow etc which is again valuable to make suggestions on the seasonal effects.

5. The Survey of Istanbul 1455

This survey is very interesting due to its timing -right after the capture of Constantinople from Byzantines by the Ottomans- and also when it is compared to the later examples of the kind. The information in the survey helps us to see the transformation of the city under the Ottoman rule. On the other hand, it is unlikely to see many gardens registered. Maybe this is related to the fact that the city was ruined in a serious amount, as it can be seen from many entries like the ruined houses or churches due to a hit by cannon etc.

From the registers we can learn detailed information about a garden. Like in a register of Quarter of Balat, there is an entry as, “The House of Hacı from Edremid; in the upper storey two rooms; in the lower storey one room; with a garden of one and a half dönüm; now Yahya from Çorlu lives in the house.”[2]  Thus, we can learn the owner, his origin, the design of the room along with the garden and the size of the garden from the register. Also, there are examples of people recorded as gardeners without being an owner of a garden. Examples of churches in gardens can be seen.

6. The Survey of Istanbul 1734/35 – Kefil Defteri

Again, prepared for totally different reasons, to control the newly arriving work force to the city via registering them with a guarantor, this source is valuable for its help of understanding the land that was dedicated to agriculture and its distribution within the walled city. There are the names of the Bostans along with the names of the people they belonged and their location aside from the district there are the neighborhood names.  Some suggestions can be made in relation to the titles the owners had like, Sultan, Ağa, Efendi, Elçipaşazade, Çelebi or the endowed bostans which can be understood via registering them with the name of the mosque. There is also the total number of gardens and gardeners in the end.



[1] Bassus Cassianus, “Geoponika: Farm Work: A Modern Translation of the Roman and Byzantine Farming Handbook.” (Totnes, Devon: Prospect Books, 2011), 9.

[2] Halil Inalcık, “The Survey of Istanbul 1455: The Text, English Translation, Analysis of the Text, Documents.” (İstanbul, Turkey: Türkiye İş Bankası Kültür Yayınları, 2012), 306.

The Puzzles of the Gardens from the 10th Century Onwards

In some cases, the more you learn about a topic, the more questions arise and the further from the truth it seems you become. The role of the bostans throughout history both fascinates and frustrates me for this very reason. Last week, we looked at a few photographs of a former Yedikule bostan in the Fatih neighborhood. In class, we discussed how the photographs we looked at painted a linear progression of this bostan from a fertile land to an abandoned area but that that wasn’t necessarily the case. What happened in between these snapshots? Are we to believe the area was unchanged and static in between the images? My guess is no. Continuing with the idea that spaces do not follow a linear progression in terms of function, last Thursday we visited the former Langa bostan (famous for its cucumbers) where it became apparent that the area went from being a land area, to one filled with water that became a central port, back to land whose alluvial soil made it the perfect place for a bostan. Part of the bostan has already been destroyed to build a metro station and another part will soon be destroyed to build a parking lot — the thought alone saddened me. The function of this space is in no way linear over the years, which leaves me wondering what function other garden sites have played throughout history. This past weekend, other students enrolled in the Harvard summer school program and I were fortunate enough to journey to Gallipoli and ancient Troy. While at Troy, I was greatly intrigued by a well I saw dating back to c. 300 BCE. My curiosity regarding this well, its function overtime, and what that says about the surrounding space continue to leave me with more questions than answers.

Aside from the living remnants and literary and pictorial sources describing the gardens, some surviving primary sources on gardens dating back to the 10th century AD with the publication of the Geoponika exist today to aid the study of gardens’ historical past. The Geoponika, a Byzantine Greek farming manual from the 10th century AD dedicated to Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus, reveals the many influences and techniques of farming practices dating back to the 3rd century BC as well as the important role farming played not only for pragmatic purposes but also for medicinal, therapeutic, and leisurely ones (Dalby, Geoponika, 247). In Book 12, part 2, entitled “Making a vegetable garden,” Andrew Dalby translates Florentinus’ section as, “Gardening is essential to life. For health and convalescence a garden should be developed not at a distance from the house but in proximity to it, where it will give enjoyment to the eyes and pleasure to the sense of smell.”(Dalby, 247) Additionally, Dalby notes that Homer and Hesiod are quoted and language used primarily in the 3rd century BC appear in this text, showing the longstanding history and presence of gardens (Dalby, 13). The many authors cited in this text further reveal the great focus on gardens through history. However, as this was a text only members of the elite had access to, were there different practices others followed or are these the only ones? Two typikas, “Typikon of Athanasios Philanthropenos for the Monastery of St. Mamas in Constantinople” and “Typikon of Theodora Palaiologina for the Convent of Lips in Constantinople” from the 12th and 13th centuries, respectively, law books for monasteries, reveal the important role gardens played in providing food as much of the diet was fruits and vegetables. From this information, can we say most monasteries relied heavily on fruits and vegetables during these periods? Two surveys from 1455 and 1735 survive today which also reveal the presence of bostans in numerous quarters during these years. The 1735 survey tells us there were 344 bostans with 1,381 gardeners employed (“The Survey of the Bustans (Gardens) in Istanbul intramural from 1735”).

While these three sources make it clear that gardens were numerous when these sources were written and played an important role throughout history, they leave the reader with a number of new questions to ponder. What was the situation of gardens in between these periods? Do these documents tell the entire story during the periods they were written? These sources also leave me with many questions regarding the sources’ weight in the present. How should these documents influence our views on bostans and the preservation of them today versus how do they? These documents are clearly instrumental to the study of the agricultural past but what do they say about the present and the future? Is the historical presence and importance of gardens evidence enough for the preservation of them? Despite the many missing pieces of the puzzle, it is clear the importance of the gardens in history is truly immense and the primary sources discussed earlier further speak to that.