General · 16th May 2013
Editor on the Prowl
First, to answer the question: Gold Rush miners gave the nickname to this tasty little plant, presumably because it was easier to say than Claytonia perfoliata, and it kept them being living miners as opposed to miners dead of scurvy. The noted Scottish naturalist Archibald Menzies, who famously travelled with Captain George Vancouver a little south of here, found the plant and noted it in a journal entry of 1792.
Hank Shaw is a forager in California who's waxed eloquent about the plant online. From his article I quote:
"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 I found notes that 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.
"This is a rare thing. Nearly all our edible household weeds are of European origin: dandelion, plantain, most thistles, chickweed, purslane, mallow, cat’s ear, garlic mustard, shepherd’s purse. For our very own miner’s lettuce to be brought back to Europe, and for it to become a widespread edible weed, is almost unprecedented.
"What’s more, miner’s lettuce is one of the very few foods native to North America that we commonly eat. Think about it: How much of the food in your pantry is native to this place? Wild rice, turkey, cranberries, jerusalem artichokes for sure. Chiles and some squash and beans can qualify, but they are more Central American. Let’s face it, when it comes to the salad course, miner’s lettuce is the king of our indigenous cuisine."
So where does a dedicated forager find miner's lettuce? Hank Shaw again:
"For those of you who live anywhere from British Columbia east to the Great Plains, you can find miner’s lettuce, and its various claytonia cousins, in shady, moist spots in spring.
"The best leaves grow under trees. Miner’s lettuce is perfectly fine when in flower — unlike most spring greens — but pick before the flower stalk gets too long. Once picked, miner’s lettuce leaves will last in a plastic bag in the fridge for 3-5 days without too much loss of quality. Keep a damp paper towel in the bag to keep everything nice and fresh."
There you go.
Got a question whose answer intrigues you? Share it with your fellow curious islanders (take that any way you will) by posting it on the Gumboot Frontpage.
Meantime, good lettuce hunting to you.