Dear Readers, it’s always fun to find a new weed, and so I was very happy to spot this rather toothsome-looking plant at the base of a plane tree outside Golders Green Crematorium (and also a large patch of it growing inside under a tree). Springbeauty is a member of the Montiaceae family, a very diverse bunch which also includes another common introduced ‘weed’, pink purslane (Claytonia siberica). What’s interesting about springbeauty is the way that the two top leaves fuse to form a little ‘saucer’ for the flowers to sit in – this is pretty much unique, so for once identification wasn’t a problem.
Springbeauty is originally a North American plant – there, it’s also known as Miner’s Lettuce, because it was eaten by the Gold Rush miners to prevent scurvy. Native peoples knew of the plant’s nutritional value too – it was known as palsingat or, possibly, lahchumeek by the Cahuilla people of southern California, and was gathered as a salad green in early spring. I think it looks very fresh and inviting. The Gardener’s World website describes it as ‘one of the hardiest salad crops available’, and I would love to know if any of you have tried to grow it.
The plant probably came to the UK in 1794, where the naturalist Archibald Menzies is said to have brought it to Kew Gardens. By 1849 it was over the garden wall and off into the wild, but it never seems to have become particularly invasive. I wonder why it isn’t eaten more regularly, when so many other ‘weeds’ are foraged? Hank Shaw, writing in The Atlantic, had this to say…
“Normally I mix greens to create certain flavors and textures (I wrote about making a proper salad a while back), but sometimes I prefer to eat miner’s lettuce solo. You really get to know a green when you do this, and you don’t want to dress such a salad too heavily; just a light coating is all.
I made a light mustard vinaigrette for the dressing, and added some fresh ground black pepper and a little flake salt for texture and crunch. The effect is tart, smooth, a little crunchy, and very “green” tasting.”
In their book ‘Alien Plants’, Clive Stace and Michael Crawley mention that springbeauty occurs through much of the British Isles, often in ‘great abundance’, so it’s curious that it’s the first time that I’ve seen it. Maybe all those years of lockdown have affected my ‘plant vision’, and clearly I need to get out more. Stace and Crawley also mention that a favourite habitat is ‘the small patch of soil retained around planted trees, where it appears to be somewhat herbicide-resistant’. Bingo! That’s exactly where I found it.
And strangely enough, I couldn’t find a poem specifically on Claytonia perfoliata, but I did find this, by Gerard Manley Hopkins. It makes me think of the freshness and newness of plants in the spring, including the shy little green job that I’ve been writing about this week. The poem deserves to be read slowly and savoured. See what you think.
BY GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS
Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.
What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. – Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.