Miner’s Lettuce - Forgotten, Rare, and Hardly Known Lettuce Greens - A Curious History of Vegetables: Aphrodisiacal and Healing Properties, Folk Tales, Garden Tips, and Recipes - Wolf D. Storl

A Curious History of Vegetables: Aphrodisiacal and Healing Properties, Folk Tales, Garden Tips, and Recipes - Wolf D. Storl (2016)

Forgotten, Rare, and Hardly Known Lettuce Greens

There are so many plants that can be added to salads that it’s difficult to select only a few. Some of them can be sown directly into the garden, such as various kinds of cress (Lepidium genus: peppercress, peppergrass, pepperwort, etc.), common scurvy grass (Cochlearia officinalis), buck’s horn plantain (Plantago coronopus), nasturtium (Tropaelum majus), chervil, coriander, cultivated dandelion, and so many more. There are also many vibrant wild plants, which often grow near the garden, that can add interesting culinary notes to a salad and make meals into symphonies of flavor. Many of these are disdained as “weeds,” such as ground elder, chickweed, plantain, and even the fresh shiny leaves of smallwort—plants that some cull or even eradicate with poisons. If there is flowing water near the garden, most likely one can find cow cress, watercress, and the very young leaves of meadowsweet (meadwort). Just a few more steps out into the meadows one can find cuckooflowers, young yarrow leaves, burnet saxifrage, sour dock, and many other delicate and tasty greens. If there is a forest nearby, one may find plants such as wood cranesbill, garlic mustard, or common wood sorrel.

In the following section we’ll look at some of the many candidates for salad plants that ought to have a place in the kitchen garden.

Miner’s Lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata, Montia perfoliata)

Family: Portulacaceae: purslane family

Other Names: Indian lettuce, spring beauty, winter purslane

Healing Properties: poultice from the leaves soothes rheumatism, soothes eyes

Symbolic Meaning: survival, new beginning

Planetary Affiliation: Mercury

Miner’s lettuce grows wild on the moist mountainsides of the West Coast of the U.S., from California to Alaska. The lettuce got its official name “Claytonia,” because it was first written about by British-American botanist John Clayton (1685-1773). Miner’s lettuce is an annual pioneer plant that can quickly cover ravaged soil with a tender green covering. It’s also a light germinator, which means the seeds need direct light to germinate, so if sown in the garden, seeds should not be covered with soil. The lettuce is a typical member of the purslane family: lush, fleshy, fragile and yet incredibly vital. Each plant makes a small bush, which blossoms between April and June. Since it has two opposing leaves that join under the delicate, white blossom that grow together to look like a small plate, in German the plant is called “tellerkraut”: plate herb.

Gardeners began to notice this green around 1850. With the California Gold Rush in full swing, gold diggers were devastating the mountainsides—leaving broken ground that was immediately overgrown by this prolific pioneer plant. This was fortunate for those with gold fever, for though scores would dig, not all would find, and many remained poor. The Native American Indians showed the miners that the plant could be eaten; indeed, it contains a lot of vitamin C, as well as appreciable amounts of minerals like magnesium, calcium, and iron. And so the plant got its most common name from the fact that it saved more than a few of these miners from starving. The salad herb was a side product of the Gold Rush just like the blue jeans a clever tailor named Levi Strauss sold to the minors.1

Soon miner’s lettuce was also cultivated on the East Coast as a healthful winter plant. Apparently it came to Europe via Cuba, for it is known in parts of Europe as “Cuba lettuce” (French: Claytone de Cuba; German: Kubaspinat). Today it grows wild as an invasive alien plant along the coast of the North Sea, where the moist, mild climate and the sandy soils suit the plant very well. In nurseries in Holland and Northern Germany it has basically become the dominant soil cover and is considered a weed problem.

The Native Americans on the West Coast ate miner’s lettuce raw or cooked. To give it a tangy note, they’d put it on an anthill before eating it, taking advantage of the formic acid that the ants squirt in self-defense. The California aboriginals also used it as a healing plant. The Shoshone put freshly crushed leaves on areas afflicted by rheumatic pain. The Thompson Indians in British Columbia used it for eye afflictions. And, long before Yankees lived in California, Mexicans made (and still make) a delicate salad out of miner’s lettuce, which they call “petota,” and strips of prickly pear cactus seasoned with olive oil, salt, pepper, and vinegar.

Miner’s lettuce is sown in August in northern climates. It needs moist soil and can be harvested several times before the winter comes.


Miner’s Lettuce with Eggplant-Chickpea Balls with Rosemary-Garlic Oil ✵ 4 SERVINGS

ROSEMARY-GARLIC OIL: 4 twigs rosemary, leaves removed from stems and finely chopped ✵ 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped ✵ 5 tablespoons olive oil ✵ 2 tablespoons blueberry vinegar (or other fruit vinegar) ✵ herbal salt ✵ EGGPLANT-CHICKPEA BALLS: 2 eggplants ✵ 1 cup (225 grams) chickpeas, cooked ✵ 1 teaspoon ground coriander seed ✵ 1 tablespoon paprika ✵ 1 pinch chili powder ✵ herbal salt ✵ pepper ✵ ¾ cup (175 grams) miner’s lettuce leaves

ROSEMARY-GARLIC OIL: In a small pan, sauté the rosemary and garlic gently in 1 tablespoon of the olive oil for about 5 minutes or until well done but not brown. Let cool. Put the vinegar and remaining olive oil in a small serving bowl. Add the rosemary and garlic. Season with herbal salt to taste.

EGGPLANT-CHICKPEA BALLS: Preheat the oven to 400 °F (200 °C). Prick the eggplants all around with a fork and bake at 400 °F (200 °C) for 1 hour or until the skin is completely shriveled. Put the chickpeas in a large bowl. Peel the skin off the eggplant and add the flesh to the chickpeas and mix well with a fork. Season with the coriander, paprika, chili powder, salt, and pepper to taste. Spread the miner’s lettuce evenly on a plate or clean flat surface. Make small balls (about the size of a golf ball) of the eggplant-chickpea pulp and roll in the miner’s lettuce leaves. Arrange the balls on a platter and serve with the rosemary-garlic oil.