Native Americans ate this wild green, which has a taste reminiscent of a cross between spinach and French sorrel — slightly green, crisp, but also with a touch of lemon.
Early settlers of the Pacific Northwest also ate it. Folklore has it that California Gold Rush miners ate it, and thus its nickname. It’s also known as winter purslane, spring beauty or Indian lettuce.
But it really doesn’t look like lettuce at all. It looks more like watercress. The plant has two types of leaves, heart-shaped and oval, with the flowers protruding from the middle. It’s a wild-growing green that’s abundant in the rain forests of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest. According to Marx Foods, which sells the wild-foraged greens online and ships them via FedEx, they’re also high in vitamin C.
One of the nice things about living in Oregon is that you get exposed to so many wild foods if you just venture afield from the grocery store. In my case, I first heard of miner’s lettuce while doing research online to find where I could buy young fiddlehead ferns to cook. But I ran into it in Salem at the farmers’ market today. Turns out a local produce grower raises it commercially and has it during the early spring. When I asked her how long the growing season lasts, she said they go to seed when it gets hot during the summer and then they die. In the forest at higher elevations, they last until the first frost, she told me. I grabbed the two bunches of miner’s lettuce she had left ($2 apiece) and merrily went on browsing the rest of the vendors. Not very far away, I spotted a large sign, “Organic and Wild Foraged Mushrooms,” and hurried along. It turns out they were selling oyster mushrooms (cultivated), shiitake (cultivated) and maitake (foraged) mushrooms. I brought home a bag of maitake mushrooms for later.
Anxious to try out the miner’s lettuce on my partner, Charles, we had it as a side salad tonight, simply dressed with a vinaigrette dressing. It was fantastic and tasted just like spring feels — crisp, green, with a touch of lemon sunshine. All I did when I brought it home was wash it in cold water, clip the leaves with about an inch of stem from the plant cluster, and spin it dry in a salad spinner. I think it would be fantastic in a salad with some dried cherries or cranberries tossed in, and some nuts too.
Wherever you are, if you’re tired of the same old supermarket standby, I encourage you to explore your farmers’ market. You never know what delectable wild food you might run into!
If you’re like me and have a green thumb and would like to grow miner’s lettuce for a kitchen garden, you can get seeds from an online Oregon mail-order seed company, Territorial Seed Company.