Spring beauty in the deep midwinter

Plant historian Vicki Cooke unravels the origins of a great garden import – winter purslane; Otherwise known as spring beauty

Winter purslane
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We don’t always consider where plants originate from as we sow and grow the plants in our gardens. When you take a closer look, sometimes it can seem like we are surrounded by American imports, even in the kitchen garden. Some plants seem so familiar that it’s hard to imagine a garden without them – tomatoes and potatoes, green beans and sweetcorn are all established favourites that hail from the north and south america. But there are more humble crops that have made their way over from the Americas that haven’t received such a fanfare or warm welcome into our gardens. Claytonia is one such plant that has crept in and made itself at home, with relatively little interference from horticulturists hands.

Winter purslane

Winter purslane

The common name for this plant in the UK is winter purslane and it does bear a superficial similarity to the European native purslane, though botanically they are not related. In its home of North America, it was valued by both Native Americans and the European settlers alike for its mild, pleasant flavour and juicy leaves. It is common from California to southern Alaska, so it played its part during the gold rush when it was sought out to prevent scurvy, giving it the name Miner’s Lettuce. Another name for it is Spring Beauty, as it carpets the ground with bright green leaves and white flowers from late March.

Prolific seeder

It was first grown in the UK at the botanical gardens at Kew in 1794 where it would have been called by its Latin name Claytonia perfoliata. From here it soon found its way into the wild, displaying one of its defining characteristics – that of survival. So much so that by the mid 1850s, the Chelsea Physic Garden called it their most troublesome weed. But panic not! Though this plant has excellent survival skills, it is not a noxious pest, just a prolific seeder but this is easily managed by growing it as a winter annual and hoeing off in spring. The root system is very fine and shallow also, so it relinquishes its grip on the soil with ease.

It is a plant of woodlands in its native home so it can be grown successfully underneath deciduous trees – as its chief season is winter, it can benefit from the extra light coming through the bare branches and would make an unusual, edible ground cover for awkward areas like these.

Sow from seed

The easiest way to start with this plant is to grow it from seed, but be aware that these are tiny. To avoid sowing far too thickly you could mix the seed with some sand to make it easier to handle, or make a note to thin out the plants after they have germinated. If there is a couple of inches between each plant they’ll compete less for light and water and won’t run to seed as fast. They take a few weeks to germinate so you need to have faith that they will come up, but in my experience, they always do (testament to its weedy heritage). Make a note to sow between late August and late September and by November you will have a juicy patch of bright green leaves to start harvesting.

Winter harvest

The best feature of winter purslane though is that you can keep cutting it through the darkest months and it will keep regrowing leaves. When harvesting try and just cut the leaf without the stem as the leaves are much nicer. It will send up occasional flowers stalks throughout this time, especially as soon as the days get longer and the weather starts to warm. These can also be eaten though they are not quite as tender so I cut them off, to help to prevent it seeding.

And the taste? For a winter vegetable, it is surprisingly mild, tender and juicy without being soggy. It goes well in a mixed salad with the stronger flavoured winter leaves like rocket, mustard or land cress, or mixed with beetroot, walnuts and radicchio for a more substantial dish. Or you could stay true to its American heritage and substitute it for lettuce in a burger!

Vicki Cooke

About Vicki Cooke

After scrambling through some of the various branches of horticulture, Vicki realised that food production was where her heart is (or should that be stomach!). She spent six years growing traditional UK vegetable varieties for seed at Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed Library. In 2014 she began a new chapter at Hampton Court Palace, recreating a section of the original walled kitchen garden - so she can now grow historic favourites in an historic setting.
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