On the Hunt for Wild Greens - Miner's Lettuce ~ The Garden of Eating - a sinfully good blog about food

Sunday, February 8, 2009

On the Hunt for Wild Greens - Miner's Lettuce

Northern California's winter feels a lot more like spring to me. The wet, chilly weather reminds me of late March and early April where I grew up in Woodstock, New York. And the fact that the grass turns green, daffodils bloom, and apple, cherry and magnolia trees all begin to blossom in mid-January just heightens my sense of seasonal confusion.

This winter has been particularly spring-like, with stretches of chilly rain followed by weeks of warm, sunny days. It's a funny contrast -- enjoying such beautiful weather while knowing that it also means the drought of the last few years will be even more severe this summer.
But drought aside, it has made being outside a real joy. My husband and I went for a hike along a sunny ridge trail on Saturday -- views of the quickly greening Sacramento River basin lie off to the left, and to the right, the San Francisco Bay stretches out in all her sparkling glory.

Despite these spectacular panoramic views, we spent most of our time looking DOWN.
Why? We were looking for miner's lettuce, a delicious native plant that grows wild in the area in the winter and early spring that our sister-in-law had introduced us to the year before. I had noticed some very young plants when I did this same hike about a month earlier and had been waiting for them to grow large enough to "harvest." Now the sides of the trail were blanketed by patches of its soft, round, green leaves.
A patch of Miner's lettuce growing next to trail
The plant is also known as winter purslane, spring beauty or Indian lettuce but is most commonly called miner's lettuce after the California gold rush miners who ate it to prevent scurvy. It's native to the western mountain and coastal regions of North America but is most common in California in the Sacramento and northern San Joaquin valleys.
Miner's lettuce
You can eat miner's lettuce raw in salads or cook it like spinach which it resembles a bit in taste and texture (though I think spinach has a stronger taste.) My husband and I picked a plastic bagful of the greens (somewhat stealthily, as I imagine the regional park rangers would not encourage this activity) and headed home where we washed and dried the leaves (they bruise easily, just like spinach) and prepared a fresh salad for lunch.
Miner's lettuce salad
We combined the miner's lettuce with some baby arugula we picked from our front yard where it had reseeded itself from last year (guess it pays not to clean up from your previous gardening efforts after all!), grated carrot, goat cheese, sunflower seeds, dried cranberries, and croutons, then covered it all with a homemade balsamic vinegar dressing. Yum! You could taste spring in each mouthful.

If you live in this part of the country, I encourage you to hunt down some miner's lettuce for your own salad bowl or soup pot (just make sure you've got the right plant before digging in, okay?) It's a tasty seasonal treat and you will enjoy both the picking and the eating of it.

My apologies to all those reading this who live in areas with real winter - hang in there - spring will arrive in just a few months.

You might also like:


where is jenner's mind said...

i used to eat this right out of my yard growing up in marin county, ca. now i am experiencing a winter much like the ones you grew up with. but hey, it was 49 degrees today in portland, me

Anonymous said...

lettuce is an asian plant?

Eve Fox said...

I am pretty sure that the name Indian lettuce refers to American Indians, not Indian Indians - I suspect it got that name quite a while back, when it was still PC to call native americans Indians, too.

maninas said...

hey i was wondering what these cute little ufo lettuces in my salad bag were! (got it from the farmer's market, so no label) thanks

Edward Kirton said...

This seems to be a highly variable species. The ones that pop up wild at my Concord home have very small leaves, but the wild ones I saw while hiking in Henry Coe SP were very large. I've seen some photos online of this in which the leaves aren't even round -- more spade like. I will similarly be hiking with an eye to the ground, looking for this delicious native so I may start a garden patch.