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Thursday, February 7, 2013

Plant of the Month (February) : Miner’s Lettuce - Claytonia perfoliata

We’re still a little behind on rain this season.  But the annual wildflowers are growing well and we look forward to a good show in a few months.  Several edible annuals grow in Mother Nature’s Backyard.   The Miner’s Lettuce should be ready for eating in a few weeks.

Miner’s Lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata – pronounced klay-TOH-nee-uh   per-foh-lee-AY-tuh) is sometimes still called by former names Limnia perfoliata and Montia perfoliata.  The generic name Claytonia honors John Clayton (1686-1773), said to be the greatest American botanist of his day.   The Claytonias present some taxanomic challenges, since there is much variability within species and the several species can hybridize (interbreed between species).  

Miner’s Lettuce is an annual wildflower in the Portulacaceae (Purslane Family).  It is native to Western North America from Canada to Guatemala.   Our local subspecies, ssp. mexicana and perfoliata, are common in moist or seasonally moist areas, often on shady or disturbed sites of less than  2000 m. (6500 ft) elevation.   You can still see it growing wild in the Santa Monica Mountains, on the Palos Verdes peninsula and on the Southern Channel islands (Santa Catalina; San Clemente). 

Miner’s Lettuce is grown more for its foliage than its flowers.  As its name suggests, Miner’s Lettuce is edible.  In Europe, this plant is sold under the name ‘winter purslane’ as a winter/spring salad green.   The leaves are bright green and succulent. The variability in leaf shape often surprises the first-time grower.   The new leaves are almost linear (see final photo).  Later leaves are either rhomboidal or wedge-shaped.  Only the final leaves are the rounded, stem-clasping leaves that most people think of as ‘Miner’s Lettuce leaves’. 

Miner’s Lettuce is best eaten before the plant begins flowering - the leaves become bitter tasting once flowering commences.   Pick individual leaves, wash, and use as you would lettuce in salads, sandwiches, tacos, etc.  They add a pretty color and texture to these dishes.  You can also use Miner’s Lettuce leaves as cooked greens.   They have a rather mild flavor, so you might want to pair them with more flavorful ingredients like mushrooms, chives, garlic, chili peppers or bacon.  They are best steamed or sautéed.   A few chopped leaves with help thicken a soup or stew.
Flowers have not fully opened in this picture 
The flowers of Miner’s Lettuce are small and white or pale pink.  They form on flowering stalks that extend beyond the mature leaves (see picture above).   The flowers are sweet and old-fashioned – but so small that all but the very observant will miss them.  Plants are self fertile and usually pollinated by fly pollinators.  The plants flower anytime from March to May, depending on the weather, soil moisture and light. 

Miner’s Lettuce is an easy annual edible to grow. It’s a great plant for children to grow from seed.  The plants produce many small shiny black seeds.  In fact, Miner’s Lettuce will happy re-seed around the garden.  Plant seeds as the fall/winter rains commence, either in the ground or in containers.  Just barely cover the seed.  You can use a thin (< 1 inch) gravel mulch if desired. 

Seedlings will emerge once the ground is sufficiently moist.   The plants mature quickly, so keep an eye out if you want to eat them.   Be sure to keep the soil moist during winter/spring dry spells; once the plants have flowered, cut back on the water to let the seeds develop.

Grow Miner’s Lettuce in just about any local soil.  They tolerate full sun to almost full shade – they are great under trees as a spring groundcover.   Mix with other native annuals and grasses for a mixed meadow or prairie.  Use as a winter crop in the vegetable garden.  Or just let it re-seed in out-of-the-way places throughout the yard - it’s a great filler plant.  Ground feeding birds like doves will gobble up the seeds, leaving just enough for next year’s crop.

For a Gardener’s Information Sheet on this plant see: http://www.nbs.csudh.edu/biology/projectsound/native_plants/gallery_c.shtml

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