Saturday, February 25, 2012

Incipient Spring Nibbles

The basal rosette of Siberian Miner's Lettuce (Claytonia siberica)
Snow is forecast for tomorrow and the foothills are already dusted with white, but the first spring greens are starting to emerge in spite of the weather report.  Today, while on a moss hike with the WA Native Plant Society in the Chuckanut Mountains, I snagged some tender leaves of a few of our first incipient greens: Siberian Miner’s Lettuce (Claytonia siberica), Pacific Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum tenuipes) and Wall Lettuce (Lactuca muralis).  Siberian Miner's lettuce forms a basal rosette of leaves that occasionally survive the dry summer and cool moist winter.  More commonly the plants have an annual life history whereby they germinate in the fall and persist through the winter with only their cotyledon leaf and then grow like gangbusters in early spring. Today I noticed that the cotyledon leaves have widened into an egg shape and will soon begin to develop a basal rosette.  I nibbled a few of both the cotyledon leaves and the surviving rosette leaves from last years growth.  They were tender, juicy, and agreeable.  I find Siberian Miner’s Lettuce leaves to be tasty throughout the spring until the plant starts to flower, at which time they take on a sharp tang that burns the back of my throat.  There is another species of Miner’s Lettuce (C. perfoliata) with a similar range and growth form, but unfortunately isn’t as common around Bellingham.  In my opinion, Claytonia perfoliata is the NW’s superlative green, it is juicy like spinach, mild tasting, and doesn’t take on the burning quality of C. siberica.  It is still too early to bother harvesting miner’s lettuce, but it was fun to have a nibble.

The leaves of Pacific Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum tenuipes) ready for harvesting
The harvest season for Pacific Waterleaf, however, looks to be just starting.  In other parts of the country Waterleafs form an important part of a guild of plants known as “spring ephemerals,” and are commonly know by foragers, but here in the NW, our two species (H. tenuipes and H. fendleri) are inconspicuous, esoteric, and not very abundant.  Their edibility is also little known.  Erna Gunther documented the use of H. tenuipes rhizomes by the Cowlitz (See Ethnobotany of Western Washington in my Google Books Library) but I could find no other literature on the use of Waterleafs by NW Coast Indigenous Peoples.  I find the leaves to have a pleasant flavor but it may take a while to get used to their fuzziness.  The leaves would probably be served better as a cooked green, but I haven’t experimented with that yet.  I aim to devote a little more attention to my fuzzy little vegetable next week and try both the leaves and the roots.

Young leaves of Wall Lettuce (Lactuca muralis)
The trails throughout the Chuckanut Mountains are strewn with Wall Lettuce, a weedy member of the same genus as the lettuce available at the grocery store.  I typically find Wall Lettuce too bitter to enjoy, but young leaves that I tried today were not overly bitter and would be good mixed with Miner's Lettuce in a salad.  As we were leaving I noticed a few Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica) poking through the detritus.  They are much too young to bother harvesting, but I couldn’t help but acknowledge another one of my favorite spring vegetables.

A cute but well armored sprout of Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)

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