It’s funny how some American plants have to leave home to become famous. We have a wealth of native treasures, but it’s the Germans developing all those interesting cultivars of goldenrod and black-eyed Susan, the English planting named varieties of shadblow considered a “weed tree” by folks this side of the pond.
Even some of our native foods have been more widely embraced abroad. Take claytonia, a salad green you might not recognize, even by the more descriptive name of miner’s lettuce. It’s not a lettuce, but a low-growing plant found in areas that are damp in winter, throughout the west coast of North America. Miners foraged for it during the Gold Rush in order to avoid scurvy, since it provided a rare winter source of vitamin C. Meanwhile Europeans were growing it on a commercial scale, calling it winter purslane. It’s not a purslane either, even though both are members of the portulaca family, a group of plants known for their juicy, succulent leaves.
When you finally meet claytonia (or if you already know it) you’ll agree that it’s a plant with everything going for it. In the ever-widening field of intriguing salads, this one looks like no other. From a hard little base at soil level sprout dozens of thin stems, topped with tiny, heart-shaped leaves. As these mature, each encircles its stem, clasping it, so that the leaf appears as a flat-topped parasol, or one blown into a slightly cupped shape by a gust of wind. In botany this is called a perfoliate leaf, the trait that gives the plant its Latin name Montia perfoliata (or Claytonia perfoliata, depending on which taxonomist you consult).
From the center of the parasol a tiny white or pinkish flower appears, then a cluster, then a little sprig. Finally, the sprig elongates, as a continuation of the stem. The flowers turn into brown capsules that scatter multitudes of tiny black seeds, as the rest of the plant turns pale and dies.
The leaves are nutritious and wonderfully fresh-tasting, a great background for more assertive flavors in a mixed salad, such as arugula, beet leaf, tatsoi and mustard. Though not quite as pillowy as purslane, claytonia leaves contain so much air that they float on the water in your sink, like a raft of baby lily pads. I rarely wash them though. Unless spattered by mud, they are held so erect by the stems that you can grasp them like a bouquet of violets. I cut them with just an inch or two of stem.
The leaves also are beautiful, even before the flowers appear brilliant green, sometimes tinged with red, or with pale green streaks. They’re the perfect edible garnish. Sometimes I make a nest of them on which to set a fish fillet, a pork medallion, an egg. But I’ll also toss a whole salad with claytonia alone. Cooking it seems beside the point, although a few handfuls dropped into a soup at the last minute will lend just a bit of thickness, the way sorrel would. This is one way to use the leaves if they have grown larger and firmer, as they may in California. In my garden they stay very tender, rarely more than an inch across.
Claytonia is a winter annual. Typically, these are low-growing, cold-hardy plants which drop their seeds in spring, but the seeds don’t germinate and grow until the days begin to shorten at the end of summer. In the wild, this strategy assures that taller plants will shade them and keep them moist during their early growth, then die down just as the small plants need more sun. These then overwinter, going to seed rapidly as soon as the days lengthen and the temperature moderates, in early spring.
For a gardener, this means that a spring-planted crop of claytonia can be successful, and a fall and winter one, planted in September, will be better still, because it won’t quickly bolt to seed. It’s also an ideal crop for a cold frame or cool greenhouse. Eliot and I have some in our little home greenhouse right now. Plant claytonia next fall and you should be able to cut it and recut it until spring, being careful to leave that little nubbin at the base intact.
Growing claytonia is ridiculously easy. It is not fussy about soil, asking only consistent moisture. You might even plant it in the shade of a deciduous tree where other garden crops might languish. It will receive the sun it needs after the tree’s leaves fall. Though the seeds are tiny, try to sow them thinly. It is neither practical nor necessary to thin the seedlings later. Rip out the plants promptly when they start to set seed (they’re easy to pull up). Otherwise, you will have a galaxy of claytonia plants the following year, and not necessarily where you want them. On the other hand, letting a few plants self-sow in the bed may prove to be a handy way to insure a yearly supply of this elfin crop for your winter table.
Barbara Damrosch’s latest book Is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”