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Stories from the valley

If you were in the Sierra in the 1850s you’d know this plant

Contributed by Tim Johnson

Spring has finally fought its way free of the long cold winter here in the Sierra Foothills. The landscape is green and the first wildflowers starting to show. One small white bloom that will likely go missed by most is found on the oddly round leaf of miner’s lettuce. This native plant with a round disk-shaped leaf and small white flowers thrives in throughout California is the shaded, damp duff under the oak canopy.

The plant got its name from the Gold Rush. Food stuffs were hard to come by and when they could be found expensive. Fresh food was almost unheard of. Beans, bacon and rice were staples.

It’s no wonder then that prospectors foraged as much as they could to supplement their miserable fare. Poking around the oaks in the gold fields, they discovered this plant which they dubbed miners lettuce. The plant will remind gourmand of mache with a thicker but tender and rather succulent leaf that must have been heavenly to a greens–starved miner.

Some still forage for this plant annually and it is widely grown for its culinary use in Europe. A word of caution from the literature, however, is that the plant can accumulate toxic amounts of soluble oxalates.

Once you can identify this odd little plant, you will see it everywhere – a thriving remnant of our fevered heritage.