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Miner's Lettuce

Miner's Lettuce
Miner's Lettuce
Montia perfoliata
(Photo by Tim Reiley)
This plant is one of those things in life that you can go for years without noticing, and then find it hard to imagine how you could have missed it. It is hard to hike anywhere around here in the Spring without coming across it. The trail up to Coyote Peak is thick with it between late February and May. It appears first in the sunlit areas, but the best stands are under shade. As the days get hotter, the leaves turn a deep red color as they dry out. Once you get to know it, you will begin to notice the first shoots as early as December, soon after the first heavy rains. The short days of winter will suddenly be more tolerable as the sight of those first shoots reassure you that Spring is on its way.
Lettuce? Yes, you can eat it--raw in salads or boiled like spinach. Early settlers and Indians collected and ate it. It is said that California Indians used to place it by red ant hills to pick up formic acid as a dressing. I would be worried that the ants would eat it. I rarely pass the young plants without pulling off a leaf to nibble on. It tastes a lot like raw spinach to me, not as delicate as lettuce. It has none of the peppery kick of the the somewhat similar garden plant (weed?) nasturtium Tropaeolum majus, which is also in the Purslane family.
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