Europe has given American gardeners many persistent weeds, such as dandelions, purslane and shepherd’s purse, but few of our own have crossed the ocean to return the favor. Offhand, I can think of only one: claytonia.
It’s the kind of weed you like to have. Also known as miner’s lettuce, the plant is native to California, where it flourishes in winter or early spring when greenery is scarce. It fortified prospectors in the Gold Rush days with ample vitamin C as protection against scurvy.
Claytonia also feeds wildlife in winter, covers and stabilizes disturbed soil, and is one of the first things to heal the land after fire. Hank Shaw, writing in The Atlantic magazine, noted that Northern Californians know it well. After wild blackberries and fennel, he wrote, claytonia is “probably the most recognized wild edible in this part of the country.”
There’s a lot to love about claytonia, which is known botanically either as Claytonia perfoliata or Montia perfoliata. Call it what you will, it’s beautiful. Each small round leaf is pierced in the center by a slender stem to support a spray of fragrant white flowers. Air inside the leaves’ cells makes them pleasantly succulent.
As for flavor, the leaves are mild, bland if your gold standard is arugula, but a fine background for more assertive herbs and dressings. I love them raw in salads but I can imagine them cooked in a creamy soup. Maybe a green vichyssoise with lemon.
Horticulturally, the most important fact about claytonia is that it’s a winter annual, which means it germinates in fall, lives through the winter, blooms in spring, goes to seed, and dies in summer. So your best bet is a late summer or fall planting.
Sown outdoors in early spring it will spread a carpet of green foliage. Sown right now in a greenhouse or cold frame, it might give you a harvest in time for a winter salad on your Christmas table, one you can then cut repeatedly as it regrows. The plants’ slender stems grow from a central crown. Grasp them as you would when cutting a bunch of violets.
Claytonia is not fussy about soil fertility or pH, but it needs good drainage and appreciates moisture.
In the wild, it chooses soil on the sandy side, often on the banks of a stream, in dappled shade at the edge of the woods. If your soil is heavy clay, lighten it first with plenty of organic matter. But this plant will make do with less than ideal conditions, as will any weed worthy of the name.
As the weather warms and the days lengthen claytonia will form brown seed capsules that burst and scatter seeds in your neatly planted rows, and it may become a permanent feature of your garden.