Plant of the Week
Red Maids (Calandrinia ciliata (Ruiz & Pavón) DC.)
By Forest Jay Gauna
Red Maids (or, more technically, "fringed redmaids") are a wonderfully edible plant, and quite beautiful as well. This plant has a wide distribution; it received its Latin name from Spanish botanists on a late 18th century expedition to Peru and Chile. The common name refers to the bright red flowers, which (to an 18th century European mind) are like beautiful, delicate maids. The official USDA common name, which adds a translation of the Latin specific epithet, rather kills the symbolism.
The PLANTS map shows that this is mainly a Pacific coast plant. There appears to be an amazingly disjunct population occurring in Massachusetts, however.
Red maids belongs to the Portulacaceae, or Purslane family; other family members include bitterroot (Lewisia, with beautiful flowers), miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata, an edible plant), and purslane (Portulaca, a common weed). One may find it in sandy or loamy soils, in grasslands or disturbed areas. It is a spreading annual plant, with linear flat leaves, alternately arranged. The flower petals are crimson red, with 5 petals notched at the end; the sepals beneath are often ciliated; the stamens above are white filaments terminating in bright yellow-orange anthers. The fruit is a thin, papery capsule with 3 slits for opening. Each capsule contains 10-20 seeds, which are small, flattish and black (1-2½ mm long). One author of the early 20th century says that they resemble grains of gunpowder, if that is helpful.
The leaves, especially the young leaves and young shoots, may be eaten fresh, although due to their content of oxalic acid, should be eaten sparingly. Other plants with oxalic acid include spinach and woodsorrel (Oxalis spp.); cooking helps to reduce the amount of this compound. Cattle enjoy grazing this plant and are seemingly undisturbed by the oxalic acid.
The major food use of this plant is for the black, oil-rich seed. This plant constituted a major part of the diet to many, especially the Indians of southern California. This fire-following species was a motivation for some native peoples to periodically set grasslands on fire. The seed was collected, winnowed, toasted, and ground into pinole (a Spanish term for pulverised, parched, oily seeds). When something is metaphorically shattered or pulverised, a common Mexican expression says that it was turned into pinole. Pinole can be further prepared into cakes. Small wildlife such as birds, insects, and little mammals also enjoy a meal of C. ciliata seeds. Besides it being used for food, this plant is also planted as an ornamental in gardens.