A millworker’s discovery of shiny trace metals in the Sierra foothills set off the California Gold Rush in 1848. Within a year, the territory was crawling with wildcat gold miners known as forty-niners.
Although few prospectors struck it rich, the many frontier hardships didn’t discourage tens of thousands of immigrants, loners and misfits from stampeding into the region with dreams of financial and personal independence, funneling up into the Oregon Territory. Life wasn’t easy, to say the least. Those in remoter gold fields survived largely on a diet of fish and game. One of the wild foods that would prove essential was an unassuming leafy green in the purslane family, a nutrient-packed plant that staves off scurvy. Miner’s lettuce, as the vitamin C–laden green came to be known, continues to land on Northwest dinner tables today, long after the gold panned out, and now it’s more popular than ever, commanding a price up there with the richest baby French lettuces.
Like so many wild edible plants, miner’s lettuce has a distinctive flavor, benefiting from what I like to call the “high green note,” a distillation of sun-stoked chlorophyll. You can almost taste the vitamins and nutrients in its succulent leaves.
Come spring, you can prospect for your own miner’s lettuce in moist woods on either side of the Cascades, from sea level to the subalpine fastnesses. It thrives along mountain streams, forming dense green mats in cool, shaded glens, and patches still carpet Seattle parks. There are two species in our area: the typical form known from restaurants and farmers’ markets, Claytonia perfoliata, with its signature parasol-shaped leaves; and Siberian miner’s lettuce, Claytonia sibirica (shown) with a more lance-shaped leaf.
While scurvy might not be a concern for most of us these days, harvesting this healthy and toothsome plant remains a good excuse for prospecting in the newly leafed-out woodlands of spring.
Read more by author and forager Langdon Cook on his blog, fat-of-the-land.blogspot.com
Harvest: Find a decent patch and you can snip your way through the greenery armed with a set of kitchen shears. The leaves are the headliner, but stems and flowers are good, too. This is one plant that tastes sweet long after it blooms.
Prep: Perfect for a salad on its own or with domesticated greens; as a colorful bed for a cut of fish or meat; or cooked like spinach and used in everything from lasagna and ravioli to savory pies.