The Forty-Niners put San Francisco on the map and explored north into much of California and the Oregon Territory. Most of them didn’t strike it rich. Instead they left their mark in the form of claims, place names, settlements—and in some cases environmental degradation that is still with us today.
Life was hard for a gold miner. You had to have your wits about you to survive. One of the many dangers was scurvy, caused by a deficiency of vitamin c. But the smart miner knew there was more than gold in them thar hills. There was green, too—a humble green (recently re-classified in the Claytonia genus) that grew in thick mats, was available much of the year, and packed the necessary nutrients a prospector needed to live in the bush.
Hello miner’s lettuce. Also called spring beauty, winter purslane, or Indian lettuce, Claytonia perfoliata, native to the western U.S., with particular abundance in the Pacific Northwest, is the best known species of miner’s lettuce. As one of the first spring greens to emerge, it’s a valuable edible just when it’s needed most.
Pictures typically show Claytonia perfoliata with a round leaf from which a flower stalk emerges 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.
While I usually find my supply of miner’s lettuce when I’m hiking in the Cascades or Olympics, there are also patches right inside the Seattle city limits. I picked this bunch today in a park near Lake Washington and used it in place of spinach in a classic early spring salad with beets, goat cheese, roasted walnuts, and a simple vinaigrette.
Miner’s lettuce also has the distinction of being one of the few green foods, along with Stinging Nettle Soup, that my finicky, vegetable-averse boy will eat. 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 altogether in favor of this wild treat.