Miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata) is a native annual herb that is common in disturbed, often shady areas. It is a cheerful light green, and it holds its clusters of tiny white flowers above a saucer-like leaf that completely surrounds the supporting stem. All the plant’s succulent and juicy parts are edible, and were used by native peoples and European settlers for salad. They would put the plants on ant nests, the ants would walk all over them, and the formic acid on ants’ feetâ€”used to establish their trailsâ€”provided a slightly vinegary dressing.
The plants have been abundant, at least up until now, and you find them as waifs in vacant lots, waste areas, gardens, roadsides, and parks, providing charm, beauty, and variety to otherwise drab areas. But miner’s lettuce may be less abundant in the future, as its favored habitats are being usurped by weeds, in particular yellow oxalis (Oxalis pes-caprae) and ehrharta (Ehrharta erecta), an aggressive perennial grass. Both plants are from South Africa and here they lack the natural agents which keep them under control in their native range, whereas the native plants must share their energy with the food chainâ€”an unequal contest. I have been seeing patches of miner’s lettuce disappearing under the onslaught of these invaders, and it is only a matter of time before this little treasure will disappear entirely, save where human intervention maintains little refuges.
How ironic for such a common, ubiquitous, weedy plant.