This year spring is on fast forward: it seems as though mayflowers, bluebells, daffs and anemone have all burst hotter on each others’ heals than “usual”, whatever that is. We are in the middle of a very dry spell that started well before the temperatures rose, and it’s taken us by surprise here: the overhaul of our outdoor irrigation is at the all-important pipes-lying-outside-the-garage phase. But there have been some heroic trench-digging efforts from the likes of Vince, Sonny and Ed, and a new Age of Aquarius has dawned in Chingford, as the volunteer workforce cart water in old-school cans over to the thirsty young salads.
There is a rich mix of different nectars wafting around, but my particular favourite is the honeyed air put out by the miners lettuce, which embraces you when you open up the East Wing of the glasshouse of a morning.
Miners lettuce goes by various names, including: winter purslane – it is one of the wonder plants that “prefers” cool short days; spring beauty – an apt moniker, but one that seems to be applied to all members of its genus; claytonia – its botanical name, but I question the conceit of Mr. Clayton, and the rest of the colonial botanists, and their claims to have “discovered” native flora.
The common name I prefer at least tells the story of an honest people-plant relationship. Indigenous to the sparse mountain and coastal areas in the west of North America, when white folk headed wild west hoping to find fortune in the Californian Gold Rush in the 1850s, they found this trailing leaf was their main fresh vegetable, their main defence against scurvy and other deficiencies.
No doubt the native Americans used and named the plant also, but that story has yet to reach these gardens, their numbers decimated by the Gold Rush wave of European disease and oppression. Back here in Boomtown, the miners’ salvation is a big player in our mixed salads right now: it has a great succulent texture and a mild flavour which, like “real” lettuce, is vital in balancing the stronger tastes of mustard, rocket, coriander. Best of all for the salad grower at this time of year, as we try to check leaves turning into flowers, when in flower there is no adverse change in flavour or crunch: in fact, its improved by the addition of a cluster of cute white blooms set strikingly in the centre of the leaf. And the morning golden rush: the best air freshener you can grow.