Welcome to the second of our treasure hunts. The plant we bring you now, Miner’s Lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata), can be found in shady places on More Mesa, along creeks and in parks everywhere around Santa Barbara. Remember to keep your 6 foot distance and have fun!!
The Surprising Truth About Miner’s Lettuce
Miner’s Lettuce got its name during the California gold rush when fresh vegetables were hard to come by. Gold seekers learned the value of Miner’s Lettuce from local native people. Indeed, on our Central Coast, this plant was a traditional food of the Chumash … usually served fresh … like a salad. We know now, that a single salad of miner’s lettuce can provide up to a 1/3 of our daily suggested amount of vitamin C, 1/5 of vitamin A, and a 1/10 of iron. While the miners were not privy to all this data, they knew that eating Miner’s Lettuce would prevent several diseases, but especially scurvy! For them, it was a smart thing to have for dinner.
What is It?
Miner’s Lettuce is a small, herb-like, slightly succulent, light green annual plant. It has round, disk-like leaves, which surround its smooth, tender stem; a single stem which passes directly through the round leaf and makes identification easy. The bloom consists of small, whitish or pink blossoms (see photo). During the bloom, there can be a single flower in the exact center of the leaf, or a stem consisting of several flowers above the leaf. This year’s blossoms seem to have many flowers along the stem … perhaps the abundant recent rainfall?
Where do you find it?
We are particularly blessed here in California since, this small plant is native to the West Coast of the U.S. and Canada. Indeed, old world explorers of North America were so taken with the flavor of Miner’s Lettuce that, at the end of the 18th century, they brought seeds back to Europe and planted them in Kew Gardens, London. Miner’s Lettuce is most often found in the wild, more than it is cultivated, and grows prolifically in shady areas in coastal sage, fields, gardens, woodlands, and forests. Cool temperatures and moist growing conditions encourage a lush, juicy growth.
All the parts of Miner’s Lettuce; the leaves, the flowers and the stems may be eaten … either raw (in a salad) or cooked. Gourmet chefs are prone to wax eloquent about Miner’s Lettuce salads describing them as “one of the best wild greens you’ll ever taste”, “mild and sweet with juicy leaves”, and “tasting quite a bit like spinach with a nice refreshing crunch to it”. But most importantly, and for a very reliable and unbiased assessment, I consulted some backpacking friends. They report they are always greatly appreciative of having fresh greens available, and describe Miner’s Lettuce as tasting a little like spinach with a “neutral” flavor. I had some for breakfast this morning and pretty much agree with their assessment.
No one would dispute we are in very troubled times. But while we are “Sheltering in Place” we are definitely not “Under House Arrest”. So, if you are tired of fixating on the Ups (number of cases of the virus) and the Downs (the stock market), the More Mesa Preservation Coalition offers you … a Treasure Hunt.
Santa Barbara is a wondrous place to live, especially in Spring. And, with recent rains, we are having an absolutely beautiful bloom … one that should be seen. Add to this happy thought the consul that, for both mental and physical health, we should go outside. While we would love to encourage you to go to More Mesa, any number of public parks or pathways will do just as well. PLEASE MAKE SURE THAT YOU ARE 6 FEET AWAY FROM ANYONE ELSE … even though you may have to shout out “Look at this!” very loudly.
Today’s treasure is our incredible Coast Live Oak Trees that are currently in bloom. YES … in bloom. Oaks produce two types of flowers. First are the tiny yellow male flowers that cluster on long strands known as catkins. A catkin can contain 25-100 flowers and there can well be thousands of catkins in any given tree. The task of the male flower is to
pollenate female flowers … preferably from another tree. Why does the tree produce so many male flowers? The answer is that pollination is done via wind power and not insects. Oaks are actually flowering plants; plants set apart from all others by a unique set of characteristics including their pollination technique and production of the acorn “fruit” that we see so many of in the fall.
While Coast Live Oak Trees can be found on the northern edge of More Mesa, they can also be seen on Ellwood Mesa, San Marcos Foothills Park, Hope Ranch and many public parks and bikeways throughout the Goleta Valley. Go find this first unique treasure!