I’m fascinated by lettuce. If I could only grow one vegetable, lettuce would be it.
Its history is long and interesting, and its forms are endlessly varied. Leaves can be light or dark green, tinted with pink, red or brown, speckled, striped or solid, with frilled or satiny leaves, growing in compact heads or pretty rosettes, large and tall or fist-sized.
In North America lettuce is primarily used in salad, where it’s usually either the lead singer, or the background player harmonizing with other veggies, fruits and proteins. When you eat a lettuce salad, you are tasting history, as it was fashionable for Romans to serve lettuce as an appetizer 2000 years ago. Plus – lettuce wraps! I’ve seen chefs grill romaine, although I haven’t tried it yet.
So lettuce is pretty, tasty and also good for us. What’s not to love?
The Story of Lettuce
Images of lettuce appear on Egyptian tomb walls going back to 2680 BC, leading us to think they were the first cultivators and consumers of this plant. It was also used in religious ceremonies, placed by images of the Egyptian reproduction god Min to help him with his “potency”, if you know what I mean!
Lettuce later spread to the Persians, Greeks and Romans, then was brought to North America by Christopher Columbia in the late 15th century. Many of the varieties we are familiar with today were developed in Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries, quite a few of which are still available to modern gardeners.
If you want to geek out further over lettuce history, check out this article from Mother Earth Gardener.
The State of Lettuce
Most of us are used to seeing maybe four lettuce varieties in supermarkets today, perhaps a few more at the farmer’s market. But as is the case with most vegetables, flowers and grains, this is only a tiny drop in a bucket compared to the diversity of cultivars that were once available a century or more ago. Rural Advancement Foundation International states that in 1903, there were almost 500 varieties of lettuce. By 1983, there were just 36. Mind blown.
According to the U.S. Agriculture Marketing Resource Centre, lettuce ranks second only to potatoes in terms of per capita consumption. “In 2015, annual consumption of all types of lettuce was 25 pounds per person, of which 51 percent was head lettuce.” This is shocking to me when you consider how insipid and flavourless commercial Iceberg-type lettuce is vs. the wonderful diversity of other lettuces available to us as gardeners.
It might seem that we are powerless to halt this decline in cultivar diversity, but gardeners, small seed companies and grassroots organizations are the only things that can make a difference. Check out local seed companies, find or ask for heirloom varieties, grow them, learn to save their seeds, document and label them well, and share them with neighbours and friends. Spread the heirloom love and you’ll be doing your part to guard food diversity and lessen your reliance on huge multinational corporations for what you grow and eat.
How to Grow
Lettuce is an annual plant (a member of the daisy family if you can believe it) is easy to cultivate. It grows quickly, and can be enjoyed as a “cut and come again” green. That means you can sow your lettuce seed across the soil then cut the baby greens just above the ground when they are 3-4 inches tall. Give them a good water and a dose or organic fertilizer and they’ll come back again for further picking. Or space your seeds out more and grow the heads to maturity.
Lettuce grows well in part shade, in good soil, and must be kept moist and cool. It’s best sown early in your area’s growing season, take a break during the heat of summer, then sow again in August for fall harvest. It’s equally happy in the ground or in a container on a partly shaded balcony. I have often grown mine in large containers with great results.
How to Save Lettuce Seed
This is an easy one to save seed from. Simply allow a few choice lettuce heads to bolt, i.e. once the plant has done its work (or it becomes too hot), it will grow taller from the centre core of the plant. It turns bitter, so not good to eat at this point. Let the plant continue to grow, keeping it watered. It will eventually flower with small white or pale yellow cross-shaped blooms. Let these dry and turn into fluffy little buffs. At this point carefully cut the seed head off at the bottom and flower side down in a large paper bag. Place the paper bag in a cool dark room and let the seed heads dry thoroughly.
Once dry, cut the seed heads off the stem and place in a shallow bowl. Gently rub the seed heads until they are all broken up in the bowl. Discard any stems or leaves. Take the bowl outdoors – a day with a light breeze is ideal. Shake the seeds and blow on them very gently to enable the chaff to blow away, taking care not to blow off many seeds. Be careful where you do this – I did this late last fall near one of my raised flower beds and was rewarded with a lovely early crop of lettuce in this bed the following spring. A happy accident!
Place the seeds in a lidded glass jar or in sealed envelopes. Mark your seeds carefully with the variety and year.
How to Enjoy Lettuce
My favourite way to enjoy homegrown lettuce is, of course, in the simplest of salads. In June and July I prefer to top a blend of whatever lettuce leaves are fresh in the garden with sweet summer berries like strawberries, raspberries and blueberries. Add a crumble of feta cheese, a few cucumber slices, and a scattering of chives. For a lunch salad, add a hard-cooked egg. Dress with the simplest of vinaigrettes composed of olive oil, white wine vinegar, a dab of Dijon mustard, and a small swirl of honey. Whisk, pour over, and enjoy!
If you have a suggestion for how you eat your fresh lettuce, share it in the comments.
Heirloom Lettuce Varieties to Grow
There are so many interesting varieties available to those willing to grow lettuce from seed. Here are a few heirloom types to try.
Drunken Woman (aka Drunken Woman Frizzy Headed) – my current favourite lettuce. Beautiful loose wavy and crinkled leaves of pale emerald green are tipped with pink and bronze. This is a strong germinator and grower in my garden, and bolt-resistant in hot weather. Her story is a bit of a mystery, except we know she is an Italian heirloom variety. ‘Drunken Woman’ seeds are not too difficult to find.
Sources: West Coast Seeds, Salt Spring Seeds, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Territorial Seeds
Little Gem Romaine – This petite variety grows only around 6” tall, and is quick to mature with sweet, crisp dark green leaves. This French/English heirloom is a cross between romaine and butter lettuce, and first appeared in U.S. seed catalogs in the early years of the twentieth century. It’s the current darling of the restaurant world, and often one little lettuce will serve a single person. Little Gem seeds are not difficult to find.
Sources: Victory Seeds; West Coast Seeds; Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds; Burpee Seeds; B.C. Eco Seed Co-op
Tennis Ball – This petite butter lettuce is barely larger than a tennis ball and is tender and sweet. Introduction date is pre-1804, and it was a favourite in the vegetable patch at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate in Virginia. This variety will bolt in hot weather. Sometimes known as ‘Tom Thumb’ but some feel it is a separate variety. Note: the correct original strain will have black seeds.
Sources: Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds; The Shop at Monticello; Seed Savers Exchange
Forellenschluss (aka “Freckles” or “Trout Back”) – Stunning Austrian heirloom traced back to 1793. The name means “speckled like a trout.” A gorgeous Romaine lettuce that is strongly splashed in deep red. Very beautiful and tasty. Terre Promise Seeds says it won first prize among 900 other lettuce varieties in a 1997 taste contest.
Sources: Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds; Terre Promise Seeds; Seed Savers Exchange; West Coast Seeds