California Native Edible; Miner’s Lettuce

Grandpa was born in 1901 in the small California mining town of Bodie.  At least, that’s the family legend. Bodie is now an official “ghost town” of the American West and is designated a National Historical Landmark that is well worth a visit. I suspect that this family connection to mining lore was part of my original interest in the native plant that is known by the common name of Miner’s Lettuce. It is said to have provided important nutrition to those hardy, gold-seeking souls during rough times.

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Miner’s Lettuce Salad – photo Joy Albright-Souza

The botanical name is Claytonia perfoliata (syn. Montia perfoliata) and this bright green annual has small white flowers and unusual round leaves that encircle the stem. It is also known as Indian Lettuce and its habitat varies, but it is most commonly found in shady oak woodlands and winter moist meadows. Ironically, Mono County, where the town of Bodie resides, is one of only four counties in California where Miner’s Lettuce isn’t found, so the connection with Grandpa is just whimsy. Notably it is another one of our native plants that has long been better appreciated in Europe, where it is naturalized and also commercially grown as a salad green, known as Winter Purslane.

Albright-Souza Miner's Bodie

Bodie, California – photo by Joy Albright-Souza

Adding it to the garden

Miner’s Lettuce is an easy to grow plant to add to the home garden. In my own garden, which is adjacent to remnant oak woodland, it was already established in the mix of native and naturalized annuals that spring up around the Coast Live Oaks after the first rains. Miner’s Lettuce provides a lush green carpet throughout the winter and spring, then, once the weather warms up, it set’s attractive shiny black seeds, which are an important food source for birds and other small animals.

Albright-Souza Miner's Lettuce With Path

A Path Winds Through A Swath Of Miner’s Lettuce – photo by Joy Albright-Souza

There are a number of sources for Miner’s Lettuce seed and any of them will work well to add to a garden setting. The plants are lovely and interesting additions to a traditional flower bed, however, if you are part of or adjacent to a natural area, it’s best to try and get your seeds from a local population. Right now, I’m designing a garden for a family who wants to use only California natives. My clients happen to live nearby, so I’m saving some seed from my own plants to add to the shady hillside we’ll be creating in their new garden.

Albright-Souza Miner's Lettuce Leaf Development

Stages of Leaf Development in Montia Perfoliataphoto by Joy Albright-Souza

In the Know

If you aren’t familiar with this little plant, you could mistake the emerging seedlings for a very different plant because the first two leaves to emerge are long and skinny and look nothing like the mature leaves. These long, thin cotyledons are followed by a set of broadly arrow-shaped leaves that I think are the nicest ones for salads. The third set of leaves are, finally, the unique circular ones that are the most recognizable, as they wrap completely around the stem.

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Young Leaves of Miner’s Lettuce In The Garden – photo by Joy Albright-Souza

When using it in the kitchen, I like the leaves best before the flowers emerge because of the more consistent texture. However, the plants can be eaten throughout their lifecycle, unlike lettuce and other greens, which become bitter once they flower. With Miner’s Lettuce, if you don’t like the stringier texture of the flower stems, just pinch them off as you toss the leaves into the salad bowl.

Albright-Souza Miner's Lettuce Salad 1954

Simple Ingredients Highlight Miner’s Lettuce Flavor – photo by Joy Albright-Souza

In the Kitchen

We eat Miner’s Lettuce in salads thoughout the winter and spring, often mixed with other greens.  It is lovely with any green salad recipe or your favorite dressing.  This week I’ve had fun imagining what might have really been a minor’s salad, creating a recipe based on a traditional spinach salad. Inspired by Grandpa and the ingredients that might have been available in a simple country kitchen,  here is just one of many ways to enjoy this native plant.

—   Recipe: Warm Miner’s Salad —-

Bowl of fresh Miner’s Lettuce

1 slice of Bacon, per serving, rendered until crisp

Remove the bacon, set aside and chop, reserve the pan drippings

Add 3 parts cider vinegar to 2 parts warm pan drippings

Add 1 part molasses, (or sub brown sugar and a little water) to the vinegar mix

Toss all the above and serve with crusty sourdough bread

Optional; for a simple meal, add prepared beans or black-eyed peas to the salad or on the side

Albright-Souza Miner's Lettuce Simple Meal 2211

A Simple Miner’s Meal Re-Imagined – photo by Joy Albright-Souza

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Categories: Native Plants, Things to Eat


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One Comment on “California Native Edible; Miner’s Lettuce”

  1. Kim
    May 1, 2012 at 11:57 pm #

    This is really interesting! Looking forward to making an edible landscape!

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