From Ancient Egypt to outer space, lettuce is a well-traveled little plant.
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.
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 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.
In the fifth century, stem lettuce was recorded in China. While other countries were breeding luscious leaves, the Chinese were developing a thick, crunchy stem for cooking. We know the resulting vegetable, with its sturdy stem and small leaves, as celtuce, Chinese lettuce, or asparagus lettuce. It’s common in China, but has only recently become more available in the United States.
In the 1400s, loose-heading lettuces, such as butterhead and crisphead, were being developed in Europe. Lettuce cultivation was still limited to Europe, Asia, and Africa at the beginning of the century. Christopher Columbus may have brought lettuce seed to the New World on his 1494 voyage, or subsequent settlers may have brought their favorite cultivars. Regardless, over the next 200 years, lettuce cultivars spread through North and South America.
Meanwhile, in Europe, the French termed the stem lettuces in Rome’s papal gardens “romaine.” The alternate name, “cos,” was used for the stem lettuce grown on the Greek island of Kos, a major lettuce-producing region. The names have been interchangeable down through the centuries, but “romaine” is used more often today.
By the 1600s, European farmers were developing firm-headed lettuces, as well as red-speckled romaine, red and green oak leaf, and curled leaf lettuces. France, Holland, and Italy were the main centers of this breeding work toward more varied colors and styles of lettuce leaves.
Thomas Jefferson had 17 varieties of lettuce planted at Monticello. ‘Brown Dutch,’ from Holland, was one of his favorites. This loose-leaf lettuce with red-brown tinges was suitable for fall planting and winter harvest in Virginia’s mild climate. ‘Brown Dutch’ is one of our oldest surviving heirlooms.
‘Green Capuchin,’ the parent of today’s ‘Boston’ lettuces, was another Jefferson favorite. He claimed this pale-green, buttery loose-head lettuce was very low-maintenance. As cultivars were developed and improved, the name changed, and now ‘Boston,’ ‘Bibb,’ and ‘Butter’ are used interchangeably to describe pale-green, sweet, loose-head lettuces. However, ‘Bibb,’ named after Jack Bibb, the farmer in Kentucky who developed it, generally has a smaller head than the others do.
Seed color is one reliable way to differentiate heirloom lettuces when their names have been changed or when they have multiple common names. The black-seeded variety of ‘Green Capuchin’ is the original European strain, now most often called ‘Tennis Ball,’ though it can be found as ‘Salamander.’ The white-seeded variety, now known as ‘Boston Market,’ is one of the oldest heirlooms in the United States.
‘Silesia,’ developed in France, was a favorite lettuce in the United States in the 1800s. A hardy, non-heading lettuce with crinkled leaf edges, it has acquired many names since then, including ‘Curled Silesia,’ ‘Early Curled Simpson,’ and ‘White Seeded Simpson.’
Eugene Davis selected the most cold-tolerant plants of the ‘Curled Silesia’ for winter greenhouse growing in Michigan in the late 1800s. He named the new, hardier cultivar ‘Grand Rapids.’
In the early 1900s, the five most popular lettuces were ‘Prizehead,’ ‘Hanson,’ ‘Black Seeded Simpson,’ ‘Tennis Ball,’ and ‘Big Boston,’ in that order. Vendors would have to sell these greens locally because they were too fragile and perishable to hold up in shipping.
Refrigerated railroad cars had existed in some form since about 1860, and by the 1920s had become sophisticated enough to ship lettuce across the country from California, where lettuce was grown year-round. Firm crisphead lettuces, such as ‘New York,’ were best for travelling, and the list of the most popular cultivars reflected this priority: ‘New York,’ ‘Big Boston,’ ‘Grand Rapids,’ ‘Salamander,’ and ‘Hanson’ soon topped the charts.
In 1941, ‘Great Lakes,’ a true iceberg lettuce, replaced ‘New York’ as America’s leading lettuce. It was bolt-resistant, productive in extreme weather conditions, and denser than crispheads before it. In 1944, ‘Great Lakes’ was the All-America Selections winner, and this iceberg is what Americans ate for decades in salads, sandwiches, and slaws.
Tastes changed in the 1970s. Good health and natural foods returned to the forefront of the culinary world, and lettuce was inspected for nutrition as critically as other produce. Iceberg, while hardier and better suited to long-distance shipping and storage, is less nutritious than butter, romaine, and leaf lettuce. In response to the demand for more nutritious foods, salad bars starting serving several types of lettuce, and supermarkets sold bagged mixes of greens. Improved post-harvest packing and storing, coupled with more efficient refrigerated shipping, made delicate lettuce cultivars widely available. Diversity returned to consumers’ plates.
Healthier and more interesting greens continue to replace iceberg cultivars. Over the last 25 years, lettuce mix has become trendy gourmet fare. Mixed greens, generally labeled “mesclun,” are often combinations of various types of baby lettuce. Other mixes add nutrient-dense greens, such as kale, chard, and spinach, or include spicy leaf vegetables, such as arugula, mizuna, and mustard. Seed companies create their own combinations for gardeners, and mesclun is on nearly every restaurant menu.
In 2015, the astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) grew and ate ‘Outredgeous’ red romaine lettuce. Their garden was a chamber called Veggie, and it contained crop-appropriate lighting and rooting pillows instead of soil. Half the lettuce was tested for food safety on board and eaten by the astronauts, while the other half of the harvest was frozen and returned to Earth for scientific analysis. More than just a food source, gardens in space may be a way to manage the stress of living and working in an extreme environment for extended periods of time, whether on the ISS or on potential long-range space missions.
In 2016, the ISS astronauts experimented with cut-and-come-again lettuce for an extended harvest period, continuing to test possibilities for growing food on space vehicles, and to improve the garden modules for better harvests.
In space, in ancient Egypt, and at nearly every point in between, lettuce has been a valuable part of our diets, providing an abundance of vitamins and minerals in exchange for little effort in cultivation or preparation. The variety of lettuces available today range from the bitter greens scorned by the Romans, to loose, buttery cultivars best eaten the day they’re cut, to sturdy icebergs unbothered by cold or long storage. Whichever cultivars you prefer, when you sit down to a fresh, homegrown salad, savor the thousands of years of love and plant breeding that went into each bite.
Lettuce is easy to grow, making even a novice gardener feel successful. It typically likes cool weather, but heat-tolerant cultivars do exist. It doesn’t mind light shade and is suitable for container gardening.
Sow seeds or plant starts 8 to 12 inches apart in soil amended with compost. Lettuce has shallow roots, so it needs daily watering. Mulch with straw to conserve water and smother competing weeds. Use shade cloth to keep lettuce cool in midsummer, and use low tunnels for protection through winter.
Cut lettuce first thing in the morning before the sun warms it up, while it’s crisp. You can cut the outer leaves of lettuce heads before the plants are fully mature to extend your harvest. Wash, chill, and serve!
My favorite homemade dressing is a blend of olive oil, pesto, soy sauce, and chopped garlic. My second favorite is Thousand Island dressing made from mayonnaise, ketchup, and chopped homegrown pickles and their juice.
Bio: Nan Fischer is the founder of the Taos Seed Exchange, a free seed-swapping service offered to home gardeners in Taos County, New Mexico. She has a degree in horticulture and has used her knowledge to nurture plants for more than 40 years.
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