Miner’s lettuce is a soft, tender, wild green. It was once eaten by the 49ers as they panned for gold in California, but it’s also known as Indian lettuce, winter purslane, or by its Latin name, Claytonia perfoliata.
Miner’s lettuce loves cool spring weather and damp shady places — conditions that don’t abide much in the cold and sunny landscape of New Mexico, where I live, but that do hold in northern California, my destination on my Valentine’s Day drive to California to visit my family.
My brother farms and makes olive oil about 20 miles west of Sacramento, and my brother-in-law, who lives next door, is quite the gardener and birder. Putah Creek runs across the backs of their joined properties, and in front of them lie walnut and plum orchards along with the olive trees, fig, ornamental plums, almonds, palms, and more.
On my customary walk with my brother-in-law along the creek to check out the otter den, nesting hummingbirds, and possible bobcat, coyote, and wild turkeys, we passed a luscious clump of miner’s lettuce growing among the spring grasses and chickweed.
As I picked a clump of these soft, buttery leaves to nibble on, I recalled the package of Claytonia seeds I didn’t get around to trying to grow last year. And I remembered picking miner’s lettuce at Green Gulch Farm and including the charming leaves in salads at Greens back in the early 1980s.
At the restaurant, no one had a clue what these leaves — perforated with a stem on the lower end and a small white flower on the leaf — could possibly be.
“Weeds? Is that what you’re feeding me?” one customer asked.
“Well, yes and no. These are the most delicate, lovely pure leaf/weeds I could find,” I answered.
Besides, they weren’t really weeds, which, technically, are plants that are growing where you don’t want them. Miner’s lettuce grows happily on its own in places we are unlikely to farm: tucked against a clump of large rocks, cascading down a bank, hidden behind trees in the damp and the shade.
Today weeds and other wild foods are not as surprising to find on your plate as they once were. In fact, some, such as ramps and chanterelles, have suffered from diners’ overenthusiasm for them and foragers’ tendency to overharvest them.
But miner’s lettuce is probably OK. Little green leaves aren’t as seductive as an aromatic mushroom or garlicky ramp — though they are to me. Their moniker of “winter purslane” probably refers to their fleshiness, but they aren’t otherwise like purslane. They’re certainly not as thick as those leaves. One bite, and they collapse in your mouth. The stems can stay attached to the leaves, for they too are tender, offering a more crisp and delicate texture that plays against the velvety leaves.
Though utterly insubstantial, miner’s lettuce can also go inside a sandwich or be clumped on a plate to offer a surprising garnish. Like a nasturtium leaf, you could fold one around a dab of herb-infused cream cheese.
Some say you can cook it like spinach, but I find miner’s lettuce to be way too small, watery, and stemmy to cook successfully. But whatever you choose to do with your miner’s lettuce, it is a sign of spring just as surely as are narcissus or hummingbirds building their nests. See if they aren’t growing where you live.
And if you want to try to grow them yourself, Baker Creek has seeds. Surely there’s a faucet with a modest drip under the shade of some tree in your yard. Or maybe they’d work in a greenhouse — one more reason to get busy and build one.
Miner’s lettuce loves the damp, cool shade, and when the weather turns hot, the leaves turn red, toughen, then dry up and disappear until the next spring.
While it would be — will be — wonderful to have some to pick in New Mexico, the green swaths of miner’s lettuce are also a taste of home, of California in February, just before everything gets set to burst into flower.
If you find some of these round leaves with long stems and that little white flower on your plate one day, don’t push them to the side. Instead, pay homage to a delicate delight.
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