I love living in Santa Fe, really I do. But one of my favorite wild greens, miner’s lettuce, doesn’t grow wild here. Native to the West Coast of the U.S. and Canada, it blankets hillsides there in early spring, when cool temperatures and moist growing conditions encourage lush, juicy growth. Whenever possible, I arrange to visit a friend in the Bay Area in March or April, so I can get my fill of this succulent, tasty green. I’ve even been known to hike with a small bottle of salad dressing so I can enjoy a picnic of miner’s lettuce on the spot.
About Miner’s Lettuce
Miner’s lettuce got its name during the gold rush when fresh vegetables were hard to come by. It was a plentiful green, and its high vitamin C levels kept scurvy among the miners at bay. Miner’s lettuce also contains good amounts of iron and vitamin A.
Succulent and crunchy, miner’s lettuce stays sweet and mild even after it flowers, unlike many greens. Most miner’s lettuce is easily recognizable by its round leaves perforated at the center by its stems and flowers. However, depending on the location or time of year, the terminal leaves may be more pointy or wing shaped. Small pink or white flowers are held, centered, above the disc-shaped leaves in spring and are also edible.
Old world explorers of North America were so taken with the flavor of miner’s lettuce that they brought seeds back to Europe. It was planted in Kew Gardens in London at the end of the 18th century, and was spread by British colonizers as far away as Cuba and Australia in the following decades.
How to Harvest Miner’s Lettuce
The entire miner’s lettuce plant is edible, but the tenderest and tastiest parts are the terminal leaves. Pinch the stem just above the bottom leaves, leaving them behind to continue growing. Young stems are often tender enough to use in salads, but if you don’t like how they look, you can pinch them off the round leaves when you get home. Plants growing in shade will be tastier and more tender than those growing in sun. Sunny, dry conditions stress plants and give foliage a reddish tint. These leaves may develop a bitter taste, so focus on picking green leaves from shady, moist places.
Despite it being classified as an annual plant, there are some people who swear miner’s lettuce is perennial, with the same plants returning year after year. At the very least, miner’s lettuce self-seeds freely, and as a result, it returns to the same area year after year. In many places it’s one of the earliest spring greens to appear. If miner’s lettuce doesn’t grow wild where you live, you can order seeds to start your miner’s lettuce crop. Because it’s a reliable self-seeder, you should only have to plant it once. It’s such an attractive plant, I’d grow it as an ornamental ground cover, although I’d probably end up eating it all. And let’s face it, the climate in Santa Fe is too dry, too hot, and too sunny to keep miner’s lettuce happy.
How to Eat Miner’s Lettuce
Miner’s lettuce is such a mild, tasty leaf, it’s best appreciated fresh and raw, either in a salad or tucked into a sandwich. It’s one of the few greens you could make an entire salad out of and find it neither boring nor overpowering. Miner’s lettuce needs nothing more than a simple vinaigrette and a few crumbles of goat cheese. Actually, it doesn’t even need the goat cheese.