Winter Purslane, or Miner’s Lettuce, Claytonia perfoliata, is an attractive edible plant which can be found in winter and spring in many parts of Norfolk. I grow it on my allotment, where my plants are the self-seeded descendants of plants grown from a bought packet of seeds about ten years ago. In the countryside you can find it growing on sandy, disturbed ground, including under hedges on sandy soils, in places that are too dry in summer to support many other plants. This winter I also found it growing at the bases of Lime trees along Christchurch Road in Norwich.
Winter Purslane comes originally from North America, and its alternative name of Miner’s Lettuce comes from its use by miners in the Californian Gold Rush as a preventative of scurvy. In the UK, the plant was introduced into cultivation in 1794. It was first recorded in the wild in 1849 and by 1853 was the most troublesome weed in the Chelsea Physic Garden. It is an annual and it certainly seeds prolifically, but it is shallow-rooted and very easy to weed out by hand. Its leaves turn yellow as temperatures rise in late spring and you will find no sign of it in summer and early autumn.
Winter Purslane’s small white flowers look rather like those of its distant relative Chickweed (Stellaria media, Caryophyllaceae) but Winter Purslane is in a different family, the Montiaceae. (In older floras it is classified as Montia perfoliata, in family Portulacaceae.) The other member of the Montiaceae naturalised into the British Isles is Claytonia sibirica (Pink Purslane or Siberian Spring Beauty), which has pink flowers and comes from from Siberia and western North America. It can be found in damp woods and has a more northern and western distribution than C. perfoliata.
Winter Purslane is hardy but you can have fleshier, larger leaves a month or two earlier if you grow it in an unheated greenhouse.
Winter Purslane has a mild taste with a mucilaginous texture but I enjoy it raw in mixed salads, where it provides a contrast to stronger flavoured ingredients such as Land Cress, Garland Chrysanthemum or Coriander leaves. (I also allow these three plants to self-seed around the allotment.) I include the flowers in my salad too – they taste just as good as the leaves and look interesting. The Plants For a Future website says that the roots can be eaten too, and taste of chestnuts. They must be peeled first, which would be very fiddly. The leaves can also be cooked too but I haven’t tried these last two methods of preparation.
As well as providing Vitamin C to prevent scurvy, the plant has mild diuretic and laxative properties and can be used as a poultice to treat rheumatic joints. The Californian Superfood Evolution website describes more possible health benefits and has some good photographs of the plant, plus some harvesting tips.
By the way, I don’t recommend harvesting the Christchurch Road plants: they are next to a road and pavement, so the probablilty of contamination by motor vehicle and canine is very high. But seeds are readily available, with instructions, if you want to grow the plant yourself, from Sarah Raven, for example. I think I bought mine from The Organic Gardening Catalogue or Kings Seeds.