Pennyworts Making Sense

by Green Deane

in Antioxidants, Beverage, Edible Raw, Flowers, Greens/Pot Herb, Medicinal, Plants, Recipes, Salad

Pennyworts in blossom

A Pennywort For Your Thoughts

It’s one of those practices of civilization that plants with little flavor or calories — lettuce for example — are esteemed and popular, but, plants that can save your life have herbicides heaped on them. Case in point: Hydrocotyle bonariensis (high-dro-KOT-ill-lee boe-nar-ree-EN-sis) above, and its cousin, Centella erecta, (sen-TEL-la ee-RECK-tuh ).

In fact, a report in the Journal of Natural Medicines, 13 Feb 2008, found two new antioxidants in the Centella asiatica, discussed below, and presumably those are also to be found in the Centella erecta, below.

These perky relatives of the celery clan are prime invaders of southern lawns.  You can’t blame them. Florida lawns are nearly perfect conditions: Sunny above, damp below with only decapitated grass for competition. That’s a pennywort’s definition of heaven, or a coinwort’s definition. It’s also the dollar weed’s idea, too.  These “moneyworts” have many names and cash attached to their name, in more ways than one:  You can buy them in powdered form in the health food stores; as tea or soda in Asian markets, or on their produce stand; as a side dish in an Oriental restaurant; or, change under your feet.  In fact, I win a lot of bets with pennyworts: It makes a lot of cents.

I learned long ago at social functions not to mention I’m a writer because someone always thinks their life story is fascinating and will sell millions of books if I would only write it, payment out of the proceeds, of course.  I’ve actually thought of telling people my occupation is robbing banks: I set my own hours, get to travel, I’m home on the weekends, I meet interesting people, the pay is good , I have federal holidays off and the vacations are long…. Anyway, everytime I say I know a thing or two about weeds and can find something to eat in almost anyone’s lawn that is often followed by “prove it.”  In our manicured, raked and landscaped suburbs, the pennywort usually saves the day.  It may also save lives.

Plants are natural chemical factories. These weeds have a chemical, like celery, that helps the aorta and  blood vessels relax. They do that by increasing the amount of nitrous oxide available and that can lower blood pressure.  In India, Centella has been used for that purpose for some 3,000 years. Nice of modern science to confirm it.  The plant has a host of other properties as well from affecting blood cell development to wound care to reducing edema. It’s a little plant that can. By the way, Centella means “little coin” because the leaf surface is shiny and reflects light (and why all of the money names.) Erecta is upright. Hydrocotyle is from Greek meaning flat cup — the leaves can hold water — and Bonariensis translates into “of Buenos Aires” which is another way of saying South America, where they thought it came from originally.

The most common is the native pennywort, the round Hydrocotyle bonariensis, and the main lawn interloper. It’s about the size of a silver dollar under good conditions. Its stem attaches to the center of the leaf. Next is its close cousin, the Marsh Pennywort, or Hydrocotyle umbellata (um-bell-AY-tuh  which means with umbels.)  Equally edible, one often sees wading limpkins running across the top of floating masses of Marsh Pennywort, hoping to turn bug into bird. The Hydrocotyle bonariensis and Hydrocotyle umbellata are similar in appearance except the latter can easily grow far larger.

Centella erecta

The Centella erecta is smaller than either and less common. Its one leaf is shovel- or heart-shaped and the stem is attached off center. This particular wetwort used to be called Centella asiatica (from Asia)  but geneticists say the Centella in the southern United States is not exactly like the Centella in southern Asia, but they are so close only geneticists can tell them apart, or care to.  While not a native, Centella erecta has been in North America for perhaps thousands of years, hitch hiking on the feet of wading birds they think. Incidentally, Hydrocotyle mexicana is also edible.

In Asian cooking the Centella is often called Gotu Kola. It‘s used, for example, as a leafy green in Sri Lankan cooking. As the dish “mallung” it is a traditional accompaniment with rice and curry. It’s also served with vegetarian dishes such as parippu.  Charmaine Solomon, author of the Encyclopedia of Asian Food, says the Centellas:

“… have a slight bitter tang and are good to eat combined with shallots and lightly seasoned. Another way this leaf is taken is as a sweetened beverage. Look in the refrigerator section of large Asian grocery stores and there, among the canned soft drinks featuring tropical fruit juices, you will also find pennywort drink. The canned version does not appeal much in colour or flavour; but the drink made with fresh pennywort leaves is entirely different and very refreshing. Frothy and bright green, its piquant herb flavour sweetened by the addition of sugar syrup and poured over crushed ice, it quenches thirst and does you good at the same time. In Vietnamese areas, certain shops make it to order. If you have a supply of leaves, it is easy enough to make at home.”

If you are inclined to nibble some pennywort  or Gotu Kola you should do two things. First, make sure you have someone who knows what they are doing identify them, particularly the Gotu Kola. There are a couple of look alikes in Florida that could confuse a novice. And, more than that, as a water-loving plants they’re quick to pick up and store pollution and bacteria or that pesticide you put on your lawn. Collect them from clean places.

And penultimately, in folklore pennywort tea supposedly helped one Chinese master live to 256. It also helped a king fulfill his husbandly duties to his 50 wives….. That should make it disappear from lawns.

Pennywort Salad

From Encyclopedia of Asian Food

By Charmaine Solomon

2 bunches gotu-kola or

about 250 g/8 oz/ 2 cups leaves without stems

3 shallots or

1 small onion, finely chopped

Good squeeze lime or

lemon juice

1 sliced chilli (optional)

75 g/2-1/2 oz/1 cup fresh grated coconut

Salt to taste

1/2 teaspoon sugar

Wash well and strip leaves from stems. Shred finely with a sharp knife, combine with other ingredients and serve immediately. The flavor is slightly sour, slightly bitter. Some people prefer this salad to be lightly cooked, if so bring a tablespoon of water and 1/2 teaspoon salt to the boil in a wok or pan, add all ingredients and toss over heat briefly, stopping before leaves lose their green color.

Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile

IDENTIFICATION: Hydrocotyle bonariensis, very smooth glabrous, stems slender, creeping; leaves on long slender stems, leave scalloped and stem attached in the middle of the leaf.  With the Centella it attaches on the edge.

TIME OF YEAR: Year round

ENVIRONMENT: Any place wet to damp, lawns, parks, any place kept moist. Don’t collect them from ditches.

METHOD OF PREPARATION: Raw or cooked like any other green. Singificant amounts raw can lower blood pressure.

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{ 49 comments… read them below or add one }

1 robert January 11, 2012 at 16:53

Can you find pennyworth in Pennsylvania? and if you can where at and are they all year around in this area?

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2 Green Deane January 11, 2012 at 22:00

They make it to Virginia. Where the winter is mild they can be eaten year round.

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3 Rosemarie February 17, 2012 at 11:01

I am planning on letting the weeds grow this year in my Florida Panhandle backyard.
But I have two problems I don’t know how to handle:

1) I’m pretty sure I have pennyroyal (centella erecta), which was introduced in my neighbors yard a few years ago. The leaf is according to your descrption, but it is not shiney (yet?) and the stem is only about an inch talll which makes the weed look more like a groundcover and hard to harvest. I’m thinking it’s because it likes a lot of water and is not getting it. Not sure how to proceed with this – will it eventually choke out all the other weeds and grass (what’s left)?

2) I have a similar problem with oxalis which right now is a rusty brown and it too is spreading like a ground cover taking over large areas.

Of course I have the other weeds like chickweed which I welcome and eat and hawksbeard. But if you could give me some advice on the above mentioned I’d appreciate it very much.

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4 Green Deane February 20, 2012 at 07:13

I problem I am having is that pennyroyal is not Centella erecta. Centellas are usually called Gotu Kola.

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5 Rosemarie February 21, 2012 at 08:14

I’m sorry I meant to write ‘pennywort’ – I just saw the mistake now after coming back to the site. BTW I’ve signed up for the forum and will ask future questions there to make it more convenient for you and others to answer.

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6 Joyce March 12, 2012 at 22:28

Thanks for the info. I have a few pennyworts growing in a pot right now. By the way, what other plants in Florida can be confused for pennyworts?

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7 Green Deane March 13, 2012 at 06:36

None that cause great harm. Look for the peltate leaf.

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8 Six April 18, 2012 at 18:56

Thanks! I have a yard full and in my garden. I was hoping this thing was edible…Yeah! My daughter just went to eat some and liked it.
Again thanks

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9 Jamie May 12, 2012 at 10:55

I am in a lot of confusion how penny wort (hydrocotyle bonariensis) can be Gotu Kola (centella asiatica). I thought I had Gotu Kola which is what I was hoping for, but rather I find that it is the pennywort. Are these related and interchangeable? I am looking to use them for medicinal herbs.

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10 Green Deane May 13, 2012 at 21:42

Hydrocotyle bonariensis is not Centella asiatica or Centella erecta. They are, however, closely related and used in similar ways.

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11 Mary Meyer May 21, 2012 at 22:37

What do you know about Obolaria Virginica – I don’t recall seeing any leaves on this pennywort.

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12 Green Deane May 22, 2012 at 07:28

Don’t get confused by the common name. Obolaria virginica is a different genus than the Hydrocotyls. The common name has nothing to do with the identification or use of a plant. There are some 18 “pigweeds” in the United States, some edible some deadly. Go by the scientific name, always.

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13 RICHARD June 23, 2012 at 21:20

if you boil pennyworts befor eating them do they still lower blood pressure or do you have to just pick them and eat them.

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14 Green Deane June 30, 2012 at 07:17

Cooking reduces their medicinal qualities.

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15 jamie morgan August 7, 2012 at 15:14

Is there a place I can buy Asian Pennywort seeds? I’ve been reading about the help benefits of this plant am am interested in growing some in my garden.

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16 Green Deane August 7, 2012 at 17:02

Where to you live. They are found in nearly every lawn locally.

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17 richard August 28, 2012 at 07:08

how many pennyworts do you need to eat a day to lower blood pressure. thanks

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18 Green Deane August 29, 2012 at 12:25

My herbalist friend Darryl Patton says: “I would recommend taking the dried leaves and steep a teaspoon of the leaves in boiling water for 10 minutes (one cup of water covered with a saucer) and drink three to four times a day. Just be aware that some people will occasionally have a mild allergic reaction to this. I would also consider combining it with Gingko for better results. If you want something even better, you might want to consider the use of Winter Huckleberry. It is very fast and effective…”

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19 Virginia Lawhorne November 13, 2012 at 11:22

My husband and I bought a home this summer and found what I now know is hydrocotyle bonariensis growing profusely, thanks to your youtube video. We feel very fortunate to have this very useful “weed”! Thank you for your very specific information.

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20 Ariana November 27, 2012 at 18:18

Hi, I see what i believe is dollarweed all over the place. It gets really big, about as big as my hand, and has these long stems that are easy to pull out of the ground and are purple at the end. I noticed the big ones have these really stringy fibers when you pop part of the stem off. They smell super strong when I pick them. The leaves are slightly translucent, and the stem is smooth and shimmery. You can see spots of green on it (the stem). There is a yellow/white spot at the center where the stem grows on the bottom. There are about 17 veins that run outwards from the stem with little veins that offshoot and connect with the other veins. It eventually reaches the perimeter. I noticed that the vein ends in the center of each frilly edge. It looked a little bit like a runner when I picked it, but not much. It is really shiny on top. It ranges from light green to dark green, and it is kind of rough. As it dies, it gets these speckles of yellow and then turns a complete gold. Is this dollarweed? Also, what look alikes are there? The only ones I’ve heard of is Ponyfoot, and I read it was edible. Thanks!

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21 Green Deane December 11, 2012 at 12:04

There are several species of Dollarweed in Florida, they can be used the same way. Got a picture?

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22 Sarah January 26, 2013 at 06:23

Oh hip hip horay! I live in Sydney, Australia, on the Northern Beaches and have tried in vain to start a vegetable patch but it kept being overrun by Hydrocotyle bonariensis. Its prolific on our sandy and ocasionally boggy block. We were at a complete loss and have even invested in a couple of piglets to clear out the patch (its a big patch, 25 x 25m). But something told me to google pennywort again to see if it was ok for the pigs and bazinga! It’s fantastic for us too! Thank you for the informative article, guess what we’re juicing tomorrow morning!

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23 deekeath May 4, 2013 at 09:00

Hi, getting ready to put pennywort into a couple “goldfish” ponds. I gather it is edible for humans but just want to double check that it is not toxic in any way for a dog or cat if they eat some as well? Thanks!

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24 Travis May 16, 2013 at 14:18

Located dollar weeds in the yard, but also something like it.
Uncertain of type for it is more like centella for a smooth stem comes up from rhisome and attaches to oval leaf to the side and at the end of a narrow notch. From the attachment, there seems to be several veins radiating with smaller divisions. Leaf texture smooth with top glossier than reverse side.
Thumb sized leaf is green but the scalloping is more pointy at apex than round.
Roots at nodes of rhisome with 1 to 5 stems growing from nodes. No seen flowering at this time. Rhisome is white with purple tints at nodes. Thin roots. Environment is yard, partial shade to sunny, damp soil, slight incline. NE Florida. 1 week since the long rain. May 15th.

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25 Green Deane May 16, 2013 at 16:27

Another lowly that grows with them is Dichondra carolinensis .

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26 Travis May 16, 2013 at 20:27

Thanks Deane.
I found a good photo of Centella asiatica. It’s notch is wider I think. – I may have to watch it grow a bit longer. I may just plant the sample I took and watch it so that the mower isn’t always getting it.

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27 Nina July 30, 2013 at 19:26

Can you eat the stem as well ?

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28 Green Deane July 31, 2013 at 03:05

Yes.

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29 Nina July 31, 2013 at 15:07

Green Deane you are awesome !

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30 Stanley August 19, 2013 at 08:17

Dear Green Deane, thanks very much for your informative website and info about the hydrocotyle species. We have a lot of floating pennywort ( hydrocotyle ranunculoides) in our local lake here in Uganda, can I use this species the same way Hydrocotyle Asiatica is used in Herbal medicine ? Whilst I am a trained herbalist myself I just thought your input would be useful…?

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31 Green Deane August 19, 2013 at 15:18

As far as I know they can all be used the same way.

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32 Tisha August 19, 2013 at 10:01

Hi There,
I wanted to know where do I get Asian Pennywort seeds in Boston, MA.

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33 Jeremy September 28, 2013 at 18:43

I’m at the beach in Texas right now. I see what I believe to be pennywort, but some of the leaves are a few are a couple inches (perhaps larger) in diameter. Can marsh pennywort grow in coastal areas away from water?

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34 Green Deane September 29, 2013 at 20:48

If there is enough fresh water, yes. Why not send a picture or post it on the Green Deane Forum on the UFO page.

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35 Don Nguyen September 30, 2013 at 17:53

I have grown Asian pennyworts for a while for my family daily consumption. It indeed cures my borderline high blood pressure. The only way I have been doing is to make a drink out of it, the way Vietnamese people have been doing for hundreds of years. Use a blender and with a bowl full of pennyworts. Blend then well with a cup or two and filter out the juice. Mix a tablespoon of sugar then put it refrigerator for couple hours. It is very refleshing and healthy drink.

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36 David November 7, 2013 at 08:11

This is the first southern wild edible that I have contradictory confidence in my identification of, thanks to you Green Deane, and your excellent ability to impart knowledge clearly and concisely without ever being pedantic. I can hardly wait to attend a spring class. Thanks again for a great class in Jacksonville.

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37 Christopher de Vidal January 24, 2014 at 11:29

We have oodles of hydrocotyle bonariensis in Jacksonville, but I couldn’t find any recipes for making the tea and/or cold drink. Can someone help?

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38 Christopher de Vidal January 24, 2014 at 11:32

And then I found this using the common name but I’m not clear whether they’re using hydrocotyle bonariensis, or does that matter?
http://www.naturalnews.com/033080_memory_Pennywort.html

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39 Christopher de Vidal January 24, 2014 at 11:33

I found this warning: “PLEASE NOTE: Ingesting large quantities of this herb is not advised as it can cause headaches and may also interfere with hypoglycemic medication.”
http://www.ageless.co.za/pennywort.htm

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40 una harrison February 3, 2014 at 03:38

c
Can anyone please tell me how to make Pennywort Tea.
I have been diagnosed with arthritis of the neck spine.
I have Pennywort growing in my garden and regularly eat fresh leaves, but I would like to know how to make Pennywort Tea.
Thank you
Una Harrison Perth. W.Australia

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41 Green Deane February 3, 2014 at 05:50

They just dry them into a tea material. Usually that is in the sun on a hot dry day or on low heat in an oven.

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42 Bigoledude April 27, 2014 at 05:09

Do you like the flavor of RAW dollarweed? If I had the time and the money for postage, I’d send some to whoever wanted some to start. I suppose drinking the tea is not the most effective way of using dollarweed to combat high blood pressure?

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43 Loretta June 19, 2014 at 18:58

Can marsh pennywort be used in the same manner as Asian pennywort (Gotu Kola)?

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44 Green Deane June 19, 2014 at 21:44

Yes.

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45 Lysa July 27, 2014 at 19:38

Are the dollar weed blossoms also edible?

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46 Green Deane July 27, 2014 at 22:16

Yes, the blossoms are edible.

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47 Lysa July 28, 2014 at 00:33

Cool! They look yummy, but wasn’t sure.
Thanks GD!
Would love to attend a class in Jax if you ever have a later one. (2nd shifter and 20 miles from the usual spot)

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48 Paul November 11, 2014 at 21:03

According to USF plant atlas the accepted name for the Centella is asiatica- http://www.florida.plantatlas.usf.edu/Plant.aspx?id=709&syn_name=Centella+erecta. Curious on the source you mention how geneticists have separated them. I’ll be sure to take a nibble next time I’m out in the field!

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49 Green Deane November 12, 2014 at 20:29

Botanical names are like the tide, they ebb and flow and eddy around with each new edition.

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