Miner’s lettuce is a wildling here in Northern California, so I was surprised to find it in Johnny’s Selected Seeds, a catalogue from Maine. On second thought, though, it makes sense: miner’s lettuce is something you harvest in early spring, here: Johnny’s lists it as a cold-weather salad green.
Miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata, sometimes found as Montia perfoliata) has that name because the gold miners used it for hard-to-find greens. Groceries were not in steady supply in gold rush days, and if you were on the claim or at a big mine, it was a day’s trip to town to get them. Even then, you were unlikely to find much garden produce; food supplies ran to stodge, things that lasted under the long slow unrefrigerated shipping conditions of the time, and they weren’t cheap (European versions of California agriculture were in their infancy). In those days, many European Americans still didn’t know that greens could stave off scurvy and other diseases (Claytonia has a high vitamin C content), but even the miners who were ignorant must have craved greens by the end of winter.
Probably they learned about claytonia from the Maidu, who knew everything about the plants here and, unlike the miners, knew not to destroy their food sources by cutting them down or digging up large tracts of earth. The Maidu name for claytonia is wedakdaka (wuh-DOK-dokka).
Western claytonia is related to spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), the little cormous pink wildflower of the eastern woodlands. You can see the relationship in the miner’s lettuce flower, though its membership in the purslane family is only evident in the crisp juiciness of the stems and leaves.
Miner’s lettuce can be a low-water plant if it’s grown to time with seasonal rains. In our no-rain summers, it comes up in late winter, goes through early spring, and then dies off when the weather warms up and dries off, only to come back another year. Though it spreads into little patches, it isn’t invasive under these conditions, and would be a good plant to consider for filling in holes in the low-water garden. It will die off conveniently just when warm-weather plants are beginning to feel their strength. In more conventional, watered, garden settings, Johnny’s says that miner’s lettuce is suitable for multiple cuttings. The native plant books I have give it a long growing period, from February to June,; that’s probably because every hillside and altitude here has a different timing for winter and spring; the claytonia would grow any time after that first spring surge in February, for as long as the ground is still moist and the air is still cool. In my area, it would be unusual to see this plant as late as May, when native grasses and flowers begin to dry up.
Miner’s lettuce is happiest in moist semishade (too much sun will burn the leaves). Sierra Wildflowers (Niehaus) and Sierra Nevada Natural History (Storer and Usinger) both say that claytonia likes shade, but in decades of observing claytonia, I’ve never seen them thrive where they don’t get at least a little filtered sun each day. Sierra Wildflowers says they grow in foothill woodlands, mixed coniferous forests, and chapparal; they’re not high-mountain plants. They also seem happy in people’s yards, especially around spigots or under trees at the edge of the clearing.
While it doesn’t grow at high altitudes, claytonia can grow in moderate frost or cold greenhouses. Sierra Wildflowers says it’s grown as a salad green in Europe, which often picks up on the beauty and usefulness of our wild plants before we do.
If you want to try claytonia as a crop, here’s an important piece of information that might keep you from weeding it out by mistake: it has an odd growth pattern. When it comes up, you wouldn’t associate the skinny-leaved rosettes
with the broad leaves that come later. This picture shows they are one and the same plant;
you can see the broad first leaves emerging among the thin ones.
The pink-purple flowers make tiny flourishes as the broad leaves age. They are pleasant to see, but they mark the end of claytonia as salad: it gets drier and more bitter as flowering advances.
Claytonia’s a labor-intensive crop to pick; the leaves are at most two and a half inches across, with many of them only about an inch in diameter (richer soils get you bigger leaves). But gathering them in cool weather is fun, and the leaves and cut-up stems make pretty and vitamin-rich additions to a salad, or nice eating right off the plant, as you walk by. I once brought a miner’s lettuce salad to a potluck and received many oohs and ahs. I think this is probably due to the novelty of the round leaves as much as anything, but it was gratifying seeing these townsfolk enjoy the food I’d gathered in the woods.