Crisp, juicy and refreshing, after you take your first bite, I think you'll agree Miner's lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata) is one of the best wild salad greens around. It's easy to identify and widely available, and there's just something about edible succulents. Read on and I'll introduce you to one of one of the most unique American plants I know.
Miners lettuce is a perennial succulent Native to the West Coast of North America. It's also known as winter purslane, and the outdated names Indian lettuce and Montia perfoliata. it's a common plant to see in the Early Spring in California and loves cool, moist growing conditions. I've even harvested it in February at high elevations in Arizona.
European explorers liked the plant so much they brought seeds home with them. Scottish Naturalist Archibald Menzies is often credited with it's arrival in England around the late 18th century. As perennials do, it eventually spread and is naturalized across Western Europe. Apparently the English liked the plant so much they went on to plant it in Cuba and Australia.
Miners Lettuce Uses
As the story goes, gold rush miners ate the plant and I'd wager they took a page from Native Americans in the region who've been eating it for a long time. Like many other traditional wild food plants, it‘s now often seen as another Spring weed.
According to Daniel E. Moerman, Native American tribes like the Ohlone and others from Northern California up to British Columbia used the plant and other Claytonia lettuces as food.
Miners lettuce is a good source of vitamins. According to a study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, just 100 grams of miner's lettuce (a dinner-plate full) contains a third of your daily vitamin C, 10 percent of iron, and 22 percent of vitamin A.
Miners lettuce is a good source of vitamin C, and its use as a medicinal plant to prevent scurvy, is well documented. The same is true with spruce tips.
Miners Lettuce Identification
A great plant for beginning foragers, Miners lettuce, as well as all of it's relatives in the genus Montia are edible. I don't know any miners lettuce look alikes, and the unique shape of its leaves that resemble saucers or cups makes it easy to spot once you get to know it.
The only tricky part of identifying miners lettuce for me was that the leaves change shape over time. The leaves are bright green and heart-shaped when young, but turn cup-shaped as the plant grows. At maturity each rounded leaf will have clusters of small white flowers, or occasionally, slightly pink flowers.
If the plants dry out, the leaves can turn blush to light red. Its usually a small plant, but stems as long as 12 inches are possible.
Every time I go to San Francisco and the Bay Area in the Spring I'm surprised by how I see miners lettuce growing everywhere. The clusters of cup-shaped leaves connected to the base of the plant by long petioles (stems) are hard to miss.
If you live on the West Coast or a place without brutal winters like Kentucky, miners lettuce will be easy to propagate and there's plenty of places that sell miners lettuce seed. As a perennial, it may spread given the chance.
There's a few people I know that grow miners lettuce in the Midwest. None have succeeded in getting it to survive our Winters yet, so they have to plant it as an annual. Thankfully we have a cousin in the Midwest in Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)-another delicious wild salad green with a similarly succulent, juicy texture.
The most common miners lettuce is C. perfoliata, but there's many different species including rare varieties like the alpine spring beauty (C. megarhiza) I sampled with Erica of Wild Food Girl.
If you're a chef and want to buy miners lettuce, my friend Mushroom Mike LLC sells it, as well as Foods in Season. Red-stemmed spring beauty (C. rubra) is the most common species sold to restaurants and usually costs about $15-20 per pound. Every variety I've had has been great, and Ive never eaten one with the bad aftertaste reported in some accounts.
I think if more people knew how much chefs pay for miners lettuce they might think differently when they see it growing through a crack in the sidewalk, wouldn't you agree?
Eating Miners Lettuce
Miner's lettuce tastes fresh and clean. Some compare the taste to spinach but I think purslane crossed with lettuce is a better comparison. As it tastes so good raw I think cooking miners lettuce, unless you have a very large amount, would be a waste.
I love to eat the crisp, juicy greens by the handful on hikes, raw in salad, lightly dressed with a vinaigrette, or sprinkled on plates as a garnish.
Treat it as simply as possible and you’ll be rewarded with one of the greatest salad greens there is, and a meal that’s uniquely American.
Daniel E. Meorman Native American Food Plants
Archibald Menzies Menzies' Journal of Vancouver's Voyage, April to October, 1792