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Munching through the Woods

by Tammera J. Karr, PhD

Like many we spend our spring and summer weekends stomping around in the woods of Southern Oregon. This spring I was introduced to the flavorful wild green locally known as Miner Lettuce. As my husband came up to me hunched over a clump of green vegetation, he saw me pluck some greens and proceed to munch on them. Next I suggested he try some, reluctantly he did and found the flavor pleasant. His next statement made me smile – “it would take a lot of that stuff to fill you up, but it wasn’t bad”.
Miners lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata) is also called winter purslane, Indian lettuce, spring beauty and miners green, which are all names that reveal a bit about this amazing and succulent wild plant, native to the Pacific Northwest. It is one of springs first greens to emerge; it’s a valuable edible to revitalize the body from winter’s heavy foods.
Photos typically show Claytonia perfoliata with a round leaf from which a flower stalk in the center. Early in the season, however, the leaves are more apt to be spade-shaped. They’re tender and succulent, reminiscent of spinach yet with a wild flavor that isn’t overpowering. Miner’s lettuce grows wild in the woodlands of Oregon, California anminersd Washington but its season is brief, and it withers and dies back as soon as the rains stop and the weather warms. Miners greens tend to grow prolifically in late winter to mid spring between cool springtime temp’s of 60-80 degrees, particularly in partly shaded woodland areas, at altitudes between 2,500 and 7,500 feet.
When the weather conditions are optimal this annual herb, can grow in large numbers with prolific patches that take up entire hillsides. According to a study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, “100 grams of miner’s lettuce—about the size of a decent salad—contains a third of your daily requirement of Vitamin C, 22 percent of the Vitamin A, and 10 percent of the iron”. Combine this with stinging nettles and you have an excellent spring tonic to revitalize your system. Native Americans and pioneers of the Pacific Northwest valued this local food for its flavor and health benefits. Next to blackberries and wild fennel, miner’s lettuce may be the most recognized wild edible in the west. Historical accounts of the California Gold Rush, miners ate this wild green to prevent scurvy, which is where the nickname comes from.
Early explorers saved the seeds of Claytonia perfoliata and took them back to Europe to grow. First as a curiosity, then as a food plant. According to Hortus Kewensis, an 1811 catalog of everything growing in England’s famous Kew Gardens, the great Scots naturalist Archibald Menzies discovered miner’s lettuce on the West Coast of America in 1794 and he brought seeds back to Kew, where it flourished. Archibald Menzies was with George Vancouver on his round-the-world voyage—and according to Menzies journal notes he actually found the plant along Puget Sound, in current-day Washington, on May 7, 1792:
“Miner’s lettuce was so important as a source of Vitamin C; that the British planted it in Cuba and, later, in Australia. An early 19th-century article reports miner’s lettuce was already well-established in Cuba by 1811 and that it was “spontaneously growing” in the Botanical Gardens of Paris. By mid-century, it was being sold by seedsmen as a salad green and potherb and was rapidly becoming a weed in England.”
With a mild taste miners, lettuce blends well with other fruits and vegetables. It has a flavor somewhere between spinach and watercress: green with a slight peppery bite. In the late spring when the weather starts to dry out, it can develop a mild lemony flavor like French sorrel. It is a green leafy vegetable that you can easily grow in your own garden, but it can also be found at many local health food stores. If you haven’t eaten miner’s lettuce before, try a few leaves added to your usual salad. Soon you’ll be chucking the domestic greens all together in favor of this wild treat. When it comes to the salad course, miner’s lettuce is the king of our indigenous cuisine.
Miner’s Lettuce Salad with Pomegranate Dressing
Serves 4
8 cups washed miner’s lettuce
Radish slices for garnish
¼ cup Pom Wonderful pomegranate juice
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
½ teaspoon Celtic Sea salt
1 teaspoon dried thyme

Arrange the miner’s lettuce in the center of each salad plate and ring the plate with radish slices.
Combine pomegranate juice, olive oil, vinegar, salt and thyme in a small bowl and mix thoroughly.
Drizzle over salad and serve.

Thank You to Taste of Oregon for this recipe.