What is a weed?  A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.  ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’ll be honest, when I first encountered this plant I immediately assumed it was a weed.  I’ve now come to realize this is perhaps the most overlooked native plant in our garden.  It’s green, not particularly showy, and rather pervasive here in late winter to spring, especially where there’s plenty of water, but rather than pull it, I’ve now decided to simply let it grow.

Miner's Lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata)

Miner’s Lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata) is native to the west coast, ranging from Alaska to Central America, and is also known as Winter Purslane, or Indian Lettuce.  It is found in a diverse array of plant communities, including coastal sage scrub, and in mixed evergreen forests below 7500 feet in elevation.  It doesn’t seem particularly fussy about soil, and seems to grow best in partial shade to full sun.

Blending in well with the winter weeds here, when Miner’s Lettuce first emerges in mid-winter it isn’t particularly remarkable. However, the characteristics of this plant change as it matures. Miner’s Lettuce has two distinct leaf shapes throughout its life cycle. The youngest leaves that first emerge from basal clumps are somewhat deltoid to lanceolate in shape, but as the plant matures the leaves become reniform (kidney shaped).

A single plant consists of many stems, each terminating in a single leaf

A young clump of Miner's Lettuce with slender, narrow, leaves

The leaves on this more mature plant are more kidney-shaped

The flowers themselves are small, white to pink in color, but not particularly stunning. What makes this plant unique, is that the flowers are borne above a fused pair of disk-like terminal leaves.

The flowers of Miner's Lettuce emerge above a fused, disk-shaped, pair of terminal leaves

The small, simple flowers range in color from white to pink

So why have I decided to keep this weed-like native?  First, while I was placing this year’s order for native wildflower seeds from Larner Seeds in Bolinas, I was almost amused to see that in their annual wildflower list, they have Claytonia perfoliata seeds for sale!  I hadn’t realized that people actually plant Miner’s Lettuce on purpose.  It grows in such perfusion here, and because I initially presumed it was a weed, I wondered why on earth anyone would want to buy it!

With a little research though, it didn’t take long to find out why.

It turns out that Miner’s Lettuce is edible, almost desirable these days as a salad crop, as it’s currently gaining popularity in gourmet food circles.  Most accounts I’ve read suggest that it has the texture of spinach.  I think before it disappears, we’re going to have to try this recipe so we can see for ourselves.

West coast Native Americans have long known of the virtues of Claytonia perfoliata

Eating Miner’s Lettuce however is not new.  As I mentioned above, Claytonia perfoliata is also known as Indian Lettuce, and with good reason.  Native Americans have had numerous uses for this plant.  Claytonia perfoliata has been used as an analgesic and anti-rheumatic by the Shoshoni.  The Costanoan, Paiute, Miwok, and Mendocino tribes, among others, are known to have eaten the young leaves, cooked or raw, as greens. [1]

Later, California Gold Rush Miners (hence the moniker Miner’s Lettuce) apparently ate this plant to help ward off vitamin C deficiency.

Another virtue of Miner’s Lettuce, and apparently the reason why some native gardener’s like to plant it, is that it grows rapidly here after the winter rains, so much so, that it is apparently quite effective at out-competing aggressive non-native weeds and grasses.  I noticed even here that where Miner’s Lettuce really gets a foot hold, little else grows through it.

Promoted from weed, to desirable wildflower, the Claytonia perfoliata plants can stay in the garden

So this demure, unassuming plant, has now been elevated, at least in my mind, from rampant weed, to potentially tasty salad crop, and garden weed suppressor.

A salad crop that needs no special care or attention, costs us nothing to plant, needs no supplemental water, and need not take up valuable space in our soon to be constructed vegetable garden beds. The deer, gophers and bunnies seem to leave it alone too. What more could we possibly ask for?

[1] Daniel E. Moerman’s Native American Ethnobotanical Database