The History of Lettuce

From Ancient Egypt to outer space, lettuce is a well-traveled little plant.

| Spring 2018

Lettuce is the first thing I plant in my garden. In early spring, I direct seed lettuce mix, which I can harvest after a few weeks. In the meantime, I plant starts of red and green butter, leaf, and romaine lettuces for harvest when the lettuce mix has grown bitter. Succession plantings feed me well into fall. I’m in love with fresh, homegrown lettuce! The myriad lettuces available today all emanated from a wild lettuce first recorded nearly 5,000 years ago.

An Ancient Green

Common lettuce, Lactuca sativa, has its origins in the Middle East. Egyptian wall murals of Min, the god of fertility, depict lettuce in cultivation in about 2700 B.C. The erect plant — similar to modern romaine, with a thick stem and milky sap — had sexual connotations. Min consumed lettuce as a sacred food for sexual stamina, and ordinary Egyptians used the oil of the wild seeds for medicine, cooking, and mummification. Over time, the Egyptians bred their wild-type lettuce to have leaves that were less bitter and more palatable. The cultivated plants were still tall and upright, with separate leaves rather than heads.

The Greeks learned how to grow lettuce from the Egyptians. They used it medicinally as a sedative and served it as a salad at the beginning of meals to help with digestion. They also continued to cultivate it for tastier leaves. In Greek mythology, Aphrodite’s lover Adonis was killed in a bed of lettuce by a boar sent variously by Artemis, who was envious of his hunting prowess, or by Persephone, who was envious of his affection for Aphrodite, or by Ares, who was jealous of Aphrodite. Whoever the instigating deity was, lettuce was associated with male impotence and death, leading to its presentation at funerals.

The Greeks passed their lettuce-growing knowledge on to the Romans, who named the plant “lactuca,” meaning “milk,” for its white sap. In time, “lactuca” became the English word “lettuce,” while the Roman name was preserved in the genus name for lettuce and its relatives.

Lettuce regained its association with sexual potency during its time with the Romans, who, like the Egyptians, believed it could increase stamina. They took advantage of its medicinal qualities, serving a salad before meals to stimulate digestion, and again after dinner as a sleep aid. Like their lettuce-growing precursors, Romans further developed lettuce for better-tasting leaves, and in about 77 A.D., Pliny the Elder recorded numerous cultivars in his Natural History. “The black lettuce is sown in the month of January, the white in March, and the red in April; and they are fit for transplanting … at the end of a couple of months,” he writes, adding “the purple, the crisped, the Cappadocian, and the Greek lettuce” to the list. Pliny also identifies an “inferior” lettuce with notably bitter leaves, now suspected to be chicory (Cichorium intybus). Fresh, young lettuce leaves were served in salads, and large, tough leaves were cooked and served with vinegar and oil.

Lettuce Goes Further Afield

Lettuce traveled with the Romans into Western Europe and east all the way to China, establishing itself at multiple points along its journey. When it reached Britain, women were afraid of eating too much of it, believing lettuce could cause barrenness if eaten in excess.

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