Spring Brings Wild Greens: Miner’s Lettuce

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The rain has come, the equinox has passed and California is green again.  While our water reservoirs are still alarmingly low, local wild plants are now proliferating.  You might be surprised how many of those fresh green leaves and shoots are edible.  Recently I sampled one that is new to me, but will be familiar to anyone who was around in the Gold Rush days: miner’s lettuce, Claytonia perfoliata.

While the ubiquitous wild fennel has a strong licorice taste and the ever-abundant nasturtium can be bracingly spicy, miner’s lettuce is mild enough in flavor that it’s pretty much unobjectionable to all but the pickiest child. Its closest domesticated analog would be spinach, and they can be used in all the same ways: raw in a salad, steamed, quick-fried with garlic etc.  It is high in vitamin C, which those malnourished miner’s appreciated for warding off scurvy in the days before California became a citrus paradise.

Claytonia perfoliata is a trailing plant that grows in low, spreading clusters with many stems poking up about a foot tall. It prefers cool, damp conditions. The tiny white flowers appear from February to June following rain, and are grouped together above a pair of leaves that appear as one circular leaf around the fragile stem.  The tiny flowers set in the center dimple of this unique round leaf makes it easy to identify.

I don’t usually share my secret harvest spots with the general public, but because miner’s lettuce is flourishing right now and because many of our readers are future health-care professionals who might appreciate knowing local sources for essential vitamins, I’ll tell you where to find some. From the Glen Park BART station, cross the street and walk uphill, west, on Kern Street. This road will dead-end in three blocks where a wide foot-path continues in the same direction. Presently on the right hand side of that path you’ll find a veritable meadow of delicious miner’s lettuce just waiting for your harvesting hands.  (This same path also passes fennel growing so high and thick it seems almost like a fennel forest, if you want to harvest two wild plants on the same trip).

Edibility information can be verified by Practicalplants.org, which reports the following on miner’s lettuce:

“Edible uses: Leaves - raw or cooked. A fairly bland flavour with a mucilaginous texture, it is quite nice in a salad. The young leaves are best, older leaves can turn bitter especially in the summer and if the plant is growing in a hot dry position. Although individual leaves are fairly small, they are produced in abundance and are easily picked.”

“Mucilaginous” isn’t usually a word you like to hear describing a salad, but “local, wild, and hand-picked” sounds delicious to me!