WHEN a friend showed me the picture of a plant she downloaded from the Internet and asked if I knew its name, I immediately told her it was pigweed, also known as purslane.
My family called it “tee boh chye” or loosely translated, “swine’s greens”.
This sprawling plant with brownish red stems, paddle-shaped leaves and yellow flowers were so widely available that they were used to feed nursing sows.
Pig farmers believed that it would help the sow produce more milk for the piglets. I am not sure if that was how the plant received its Hokkien name.
When I asked my friend why she was looking for this rarely seen weed nowadays, she said she was looking forward to make purslane salad.
Apparently, she was introduced to purslane by a US-based natural nutrition forum which she had just joined. The plant was being touted as the latest superfood, recommended to be eaten raw as salad.
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) contains six times more Vitamin E than spinach, seven times more beta carotene than carrots, and is rich in vitamin C, magnesium, riboflavin, potassium and phosphorus, adds my friend.
I did not know that purslane can be eaten, but when I was younger, it was only sought for its medicinal value as it has anti-inflammation properties.
Four decades ago, purslane — or segan jantan or hemilang in Malay as I discovered on the Internet — can be found growing wild on wet grounds like the sides of our well and near ditches.
Today, if you recognise the plant, you can still find them in small numbers in the city. They grow in small clusters near drains or on moist grounds.
My grandmother used purslane to treat boils. The entire plant, including its roots, were washed until clean and pounded into a poultice, with rice added as a binding agent.
Whenever one of us had an infected cut or a persistent boil, we applied purslane poultice on the affected area. The wound was bandaged and left overnight, and within a few hours, the inflammation would subside.
When I was 15 years old, I sustained a cut from a rustic zinc sheet on my thigh while working at a beancurd factory.
Since the cut was not deep, I just applied gentian violet solution on it, went to school that afternoon, and forgot all about it.
However, that evening, infection had set in. By nightfall, the pain was so unbearable that I could not sleep. Since there were no 24-hour clinics around, my mother turned to nature’s medicine chest.
She plucked a handful or purslane behind our house and made a poultice for me to apply on the inflamed wound. By the time I woke up the next day, the pain was gone and so was the inflammation. The flesh around the wound was also no longer red.
Those days, there were many wild plants that were used as food or medicine, just like purslane is now touted as.
Of course, no one told us how much nutrients it contained, and even the knowledge of their use was handed down as old wives’ tales.
Among the popular ones was daun kaduk (or wild pepper) plant that could be found almost everywhere.
In Terengganu, we did not use it to wrap otak-otak like in Penang. Instead we used it for women who had just given birth during their confinement period.
A bunch of wild pepper plant would be boiled for a few hours and the water added to the hot bath for the women.
An old wives’ tale said that taking daun kaduk baths helped to dispel wind in the body and ward off rheumatism. I do not know if that is true.
Friends tell me that wild lemongrass (serai wangi) was also used for the same purpose.
Another plant that was widely found in the wild was inai, or henna. Although the leaves were sought after for colouring nails or darkening hair, my family used them to treat infected or painful ingrown nails.
The leaves were pounded into pulp and applied to the infected area. Usually within a day, the pain would be gone. If inai could not be found, we simply turned to the leaves of the white balsam plant for the same reason.
In fact, the Hokkiens even called the balsam plant family, chn’g kak hua or fingernail flowers, for its healing properties.
My grandmother used to remind us to grow some of these in our gardens or take note of where they could be found so that when we needed them fast, we knew where to look.
One of her favourite pieces of advice was that when Nature created man, it also provided him not only with sustenance but also medicines.
Today, I am often amused when I see the Western world “discovering” the nutritive value of plants that we had already known and had been using as food or medicines for decades past.
Even more amusing is when locals join in to hype up these “old friends” as superfoods. I am now wondering how much their previous generations had missed.