Here in Northern California, our spring has already begun. Manzanita is in flower, and the almonds and wild plums are in full bloom. Everything that's not concrete is green, greener than anything you can imagine. Ireland green. It is the Time of Salads.
And no wild salad green is more important than miner's lettuce, Claytonia perfoliata. I took a walk yesterday near Folsom, and within a mile I saw enough of the plant to feed a small town. It is everywhere, so much so that no one can see it. It's become wallpaper, an anonymous part of the green world we're enjoying these days. I watched scores of people pass one of the world's great salad greens without so much as a second glance.
I wonder if they just didn't recognize the plant in its natural setting? After all, next to blackberries and wild fennel, miner's lettuce is probably the most recognized wild edible in this part of the country. Even dazzling urbanites seem to know it, possibly recalling dim memories of summer camps gone by, or of a fancy Alice Waters salad they might have enjoyed at Chez Panisse back in 1989 or something. In gourmet circles, miner's lettuce has become commonplace, an afterthought. It is the iceberg lettuce of wild foods.
Undeservedly so. Miner's lettuce is pleasingly crunchy, mild-tasting, has large leaves, remains tender even when in flower, and is so loaded with vitamins it will cure scurvy. The plant got its name because the Gold Rush miners ate it to stave off the disease, which is caused by a Vitamin C deficiency; they learned this trick from the local Indians, no doubt.