By Contributing Editor Nancy Hulse
This past fall, we started a new bed in a shaded area along our driveway. We planted some red-twigged dogwood, ornamental grasses, several types of groundcover and mulched it heavily with compost. But the reality of any newly planted bed is that there’s still a lot of ground showing, and where there’s open ground, there’s also a rich crop of “volunteers,” happy to take advantage of the newly opened space.
Yesterday as I drove in, I took a quick look at the new bed, and all the weeds that had sprouted among the plantings. It was cold and damp, and I certainly wasn’t in the mood for weeding, but I couldn’t resist a quick plant check.
But when I took a closer look, I found much of the newly sprouted greenery in the bed was the plant at left, Montia perfoliata (syn. Claytonia perfoliata). It goes by the common name of Miner’s Lettuce. Or Winter Purslane, or Spring Beauty, or Indian Lettuce, depending on whom you ask. With this many names, you have to guess that it has something going for it to have attracted all that attention.
In fact, Miner’s Lettuce got its name because it was an important source of vitamin C for the native people and early settlers. Imagine a prospector a hundred or so years ago, subsisting on a winter diet of wild game, beans, ground meal, beans, jerked meat, and did I mention beans? Finding a succulent edible green plant, sprouting up in late winter or early spring, must have been as tasty as it was beneficial.
So instead of pulling any of it, I got my camera. The plant in the picture above is newly sprouted, in the summer a pair of leaves close around the stem to make a little cup to encircle the small pink or white bloom. It grows from Alaska through Mexico to Guatemala. I’m not sure if it’s found on the East Coast, but it’s widely naturalized in Western Europe. You can even find seeds at several seed suppliers. It naturalizes and spreads profusely when it finds a place it likes, but it’s really never a problem. It’s shallow rooted, and pulls up easily.
Miner’s Lettuce tastes to me like a tender butterhead lettuce, with a little bit of a lemony attitude. It tastes wonderful in a salad of mixed greens, or added to romaine in a Caesar salad. And there’s something very satisfying about finding a succulent wild plant when I take the time to look at what’s growing under my feet. It reminds me that as we cultivate and try to control everything that grows in our environment, we forget to appreciate the diversity of life that persists in spite of us.
So tomorrow, if the rain stops, I’ll not weed my newly planted bed. I’ll go out and gather some salad.