The very first wild food that I learned how to identify, and would subsequently snack on while playing out in the woods when I was a kid, was miner’s lettuce.
I’d like to think my knowledge of this succulent green leaf comes from some deep down intuitive knowledge. But, in reality, I’m assuming my dad was the one to teach me about the plant. He was the one I spent most of the time tagging after, as he tramped through the redwood forest we called home. However, I have no clear recollection of the moment, eating miners lettuce seems to come as natural as knowing how to walk.
Later, when I was working as a naturalist, miner’s lettuce was always a favorite to show to my classes. I’d point it out, letting my students pick their own, allowing them their first taste of a wild food, just like I had done years before.
Spring is the best time to forage for this tender wild green, and with forecasted weather in the 80s for later this week, I made sure to go gather some before they dried up.
If you are new to wild foods, this is the best one to start with. Unlike nettles or other greens that might need processing before cooking, you can eat miner’s lettuce right on the trail. And unlike berries or other green leaves that might cause confusion on identification, there is absolutely no mistaking this one.
Why You Should Celebrate and Forage for Miner’s Lettuce this Spring
Miner’s lettuce gets its name from the miners of the California gold rush. They ate the wild green in order to prevent scurvy, which they learned from the native peoples. They are a great source of iron and vitamins A and C.
Miner’s lettuce had a delicate flavor and crisp texture. The leaves hold lots of water, and make it almost succulent, slightly like purslane. It lacks the acid that many other wild greens have, making it buttery, tender, and sweet. The stem, leaf, and flower are all edible, and you can enjoy at any stage in its growth cycle.
I’ve never seen miner’s lettuce offered in my local stores or farmer’s market, so the only way you can savor this green is to head out to the wild (or, possibly, your backyard) and forage some for yourself. They don’t store well so if you’re lucky enough to find some at a market near you, plan on using immediately.
When to Find Miner’s Lettuce
The duration of the miner’s lettuce season depends on how shady and how wet it is. It starts to make it’s appearance once the rains come, December through April is usually the best season. They are edible at any time but are best before they flower.
If it’s growing in a shady and damp spot, like under heavy tree canopy, the quality of the leaves will be much better, and larger, for longer. In sunnier and drier areas, the leaves will be smaller, less succulent, and set flowers faster. The coast will have a longer season then the inland valley.
Where to Find Miner’s Lettuce
Claytonia perfoliata is found throughout California. I spot it most frequently in woodland, forest or riparian ecosystems. The ones I collected to document this post were collected in a mature oak woodland, after a heavy rain.
Miner’s lettuce is not hard to find, simply keep your eye out when walking the trail. When there is one, there is many. It spreads by seed, so you’ll often find whole fields or hillsides covered with it.
Not in California? Don’t fret. You can actually buy seeds for it and you can grow in almost all zones. It grows easy and fast, so make sure to plant away from other less vigorous native plants. If you’re outside of California and see it growing wild, please report in and I’ll update this!
UPDATE: I’ve been informed by friends on Instagram that they have miner’s lettuce also in Oregon, Washington, British Colombia, and Michigan!
How to Identify Miner’s Lettuce
Miner’s lettuce is an easy one to identify- it has a single round leaf. Technically, it’s a pair of leaves that are united, forming a perfoliate leaf shape. But just look for the round leaf. When they first emerge in the spring, they are somewhat spade-shaped, then later form the circle as they mature.
Each plant is a clump of about 5 thin, smooth stems, each with the single round leaf on the top. The flower stalk emerges from the center of the circular leaf and is a delicate, nodding cluster of small, white blooms.
How to Harvest Miner’s Lettuce
The plant is fairly fragile, and it’s easy to accidentally pluck the whole plant up from the ground, particularly if you are in moist areas. Either take the whole plant home, less the soil, or carefully pinch the stems to take just the leaf.
Choose whole leaves that are free of insect bites, and are a shiny and bright green. Avoid those that are yellowed or have damaged edges.
Miner’s lettuce is prolific, so it’s not in danger of overharvesting. With all foraging and outdoor activities, don’t be an asshole. Take only what you need, making sure to leave some to flower and reseed and replenish the population. There is usually ample amounts growing along trail edge, but if you venture off, tread lightly. Don’t crush wildflowers. Avoid foraging on roadside edges, don’t trespass, and pack out any trash, even if it’s not yours.
How to Enjoy Miner’s Lettuce
It’s a wonderful trail snack, and how I enjoy this green 99% of the time. Simply pick some stems as you’re hiking and munch away!
This green is best enjoyed fresh, raw or in simple preparations. Plan on eating it raw, in a salad, added to a sandwich, garnish, or just a snack. If you were camping or on a picnic, you could bring along some other ingredients to turn it into a meal salad, or, gather some to enjoy for a salad at home.
I’ll be posting a few miner’s lettuce recipes soon, so stay tuned!