Wildflower of the Week #10 - Miner's lettuce
While the species may be hard to keep straight, one thing's for sure - you can pop them in your mouth.
Western Spring Beauty, Claytonia siberica
(*also called Siberian Miner’s Lettuce, Indian Lettuce, or Candy Flower)
Whether or not you can sort out, and keep all the Miner’s Lettuce species straight, at least its good to know, that if you are hungry, they’re all edible!
Plants that are either: useful, beautiful, or abundant tend to have lots of common names. As Western Spring Beauty, Claytonia siberica, generally meets all three criteria, it is thus known by many different names. It is also one of the several closely related plant species that all generally go by the name “Miner’s Lettuce”. As the name “lettuce” implies, this species like the related, more commonly recognized “true” Miner’s Lettuce, or Claytonia perfoliata, are all highly edible, either raw in salads, or can be cooked like spinach. I personally much prefer the taste of this plant to many other wild edible greens, that I often find to taste more “herby” than our more frequently eaten, domesticated greens.
The closely related true Miner’s lettuce (not Western Spring Beauty) can be best distinguished by a single round, or “perfoliate” leaf that completely surrounds the flowering stem, located just below the flowers. Instead of having a wholly circular leaf penetrated through the middle by the stem, Western Spring Beauty, instead has a pair of large stem leaves placed immediately opposite one another, but are not fully united (as in true Miner’s Lettuce, Claytonia perfoliata).
Both of these two Claytonia species, were formerly called Montia (and are still listed as such in many, not recently published books). While scientific names are suppose to standardize, and resolve naming confusions, over the last few decades, the scientific nomenclature (both genera and species epithets) for this group of plants have continued to be readjusted and re-classified, with the most recently published botanical floras changing the names contained in previous botanical texts.
While it is best, of course, to always distinguish the specific species of any thing you may plan to eat, the good news is all species in the Genus Claytonia, as well as species (now or before) placed in the genus Montia, are all edible—whatever they call them!
First of all, a rule of thumb I use to distinguish a Claytonia from a Montia (at the Genus level): The name “Montia” is now reserved for plants of this group whose leaves are somewhat uniformly distributed along the stem. In contrast, most “Claytonia” species’ leaves are born in a whorl, often with the blade at the end of long petiole, and with the vast majority of its leaves attached at the very base of the plant.
Western Spring Beauty is also often called “Candy Flower” as its five white to pink petals are often vividly lined with deep pink. These petals can vary in size from 1/4 to 3/4 inches in length.
Claytonia and Montia are native, annual plants, all growing in moist, often semi-shaded conditions, and may be found in bloom from early spring to late summer--wherever moisture persist. Beside the somewhat distinctive leaves, a smaller characteristic of the flowers should also be noted to better assure your identification. All flowers in this group, while containing 5 petals, are subtended by only 2 green sepals. More flowers in nature tend, if not to have the same number of sepals as petals, will often have flower parts that are of the same multiple. For example in Lilies the flower parts come in multiples of threes (usually 3 or 6); Evening Primrose Family members, all the flowers are in multiple of fours (usually 4 or 8); and many more, regardless of the total number of flower parts, are in some multiple of 5. Thus in Claytonia (and Montia) species are distinguished by having, not just less sepals than petals, but NOT in a number that is a multiple of the other. (Short story: just look for the two small green sepals at the base of each five petalled flower.)
Western Spring Beauty, or Siberian Lettuce, (the flower pictured and featured here) can be specifically distinguished from other related “Miner’s Lettuce” species, by looking at the base of the short pedicel (little stem) that supports each individual flower. Here you will also find one, very small, leaf-like bract just below each single, individual flower. See arrow.
Claytonia siberica, as the name “siberica” implies, has a very wide range of distribution from Siberia to Alaska and then southwards to California. In Oregon it extends from the coast to east of the Cascades as well as in northeast Oregon. It also occurs in southeast British Columbia and northeast Washington.
Western Spring Beauty, (or also sometimes called “Indian Lettuce”) is reported by many authors as being a food plant used historically by Native Americans—but some speculate whether or not it was eaten in any particular quantity. Moreover, Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast by Pojar and MacKinnon (that primarily features Washington and British Columbia on north) mentions some native medicinal uses, but notes: “The leaves of Siberian miner’s-lettuce are edible, but they were not used as food by aboriginal people.” Still, it is generally reported that the miners during the California gold rush in the middle 1800s, who ate these plants to prevent scurvy, learned of their virtues first from the local Indians.
Historically, along the Klamath River, a pair of Karuk children would play a game with this plant by hooking the blooms together while hold on to the bottoms of individual stems. Then each child would pull their plant away from the other, to see which stem would retain the most flower heads. The winner’s flowers remained the most intact. The game was then repeated with a score being kept.