Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Lettuce Have Fun

The peas have set blooms. My mouth drools at the thought of tender, sweet snap peas ready to pick, and better yet crunching in my mouth.

Have you ever taken a close look at pea blossoms, delicate little fairy flowers? Pretty things, aren't they?

As I wait for the pea pods to appear, I'm picking lettuce. Tender lettuce to go into my salads, along with spinach (which is bolting and won't be around much longer), arugula and baby mustard greens. I pull crisp radishes to slice among the green things (they won't be around much longer, either) and wait for the carrots to get big enough to pull.In a few weeks I can shred a bit of cabbage into the salads, as well.

Even these pretty pea blossoms could go into the salad to add a hint of pea flavor. But nipping off the flowers means fewer pods, and we can't have that.

While all kinds of things in the garden can be part of a salad, I want to focus on lettuce here. Not many of you get excited about lettuce, I am certain. It's just a salad green. Not much flavor or anything, just bulk. Although not the powerhouse that kale, broccoli and some other green veggies are lettuce still contains nutritional value, offering up vitamin K, folates, and a few others. Forget the iceberg lettuce if you're looking for nutrients, other types possess much more.

Our cultivated lettuce is closely related to this wild prickly lettuce spreading
rampantly through my garden.
Humans have cultivated lettuce for a long, long time. The ancient Egyptians cultivated lettuce at least 6,000 years ago, according to paintings in ancient Egyptian ruins. They started cultivating a wild lettuce for its seed, from which they extracted oil -- probably for food use, medicine, and/or cosmetic purposes. The oil might also have been used in religious ceremonies, as it was sacred to Min, their god of reproduction. They thought lettuce enhanced male virility, symbolized by the plant's ability to suddenly bolt (produce flower/seed stalks) and due to its milky sap. It was a symbol of sexual prowess and a promoter of love and childbearing -- good for both male and female. So they ate tons of it, especially after developing lettuce with succulent leaves.

That leafy lettuce likely was the precursor to today's Romaine lettuce varieties. Lettuce traveled out from Egypt, landing on the plates of Persian kings, apparently, and infiltrating Greek gardens. Today a second common name for romaine lettuce is Cos, named after a Greek island. Incidentally, the Greeks thought lettuce made men impotent, opposite of the Egyptians' view. And Greeks served lettuce at funerals.

Lovely red-splashed Yugoslavian Lettuce.
From Greece lettuce traveled to the Roman empire (not a far piece) where it obtained the name "romaine" lettuce because is was grown in the papal gardens of Rome, and reclaimed its value as an herb that enhances sexual potency. Then it spread through Europe, where it alternated between a fertility enhancer and a fertility detracter. A 17th century aphrodisiac contained lettuce, purslane and mint steeped in vinegar, while in the 19th century, Britons thought it induced infertility and sterility.

Lettuce probably took a much more roundabout path than described above, because it apparently did not reach Greek cultivation for a few thousand years after the Egyptians started cultivating it, and hit Rome several hundred years later. But this is a simple look at its quite long history.

Lettuce still provides Egypt with the seed oil for which it was originally cultivated. I found a couple of Web sites touting its powers as a food oil, cosmetic and medicine. The milky sap of lettuce also possesses medicinal qualities, which likely are far more pronounced in the bitter wild lettuces that weep much greater quantities of the sap. Cultivated lettuce produces more sap once it bolts. The genus name of cultivated and wild lettuces, Lactuca, is Latin for "milk-forming," indicating the sap was its most prominent and/or useful characteristic. The main medicinal use for the sap, as well as the oil, is to promote sleep. That characteristic earned it the name "sleepwort."

I find it interesting that lettuce, which prefers growing in cooler conditions and requires a fair amount of water to stay sweet and tender, originated in a hot, dry region like Egypt. Of course, they most likely did not mind when heat made the lettuce bitter. Our aversion to bitter flavors is a truly recent development and more pronounced in the U.S. than elsewhere. However, bitter flavors improve our digestion, causing the liver to work more effectively. I don't mind when the lettuce gets a little bitter, as a bit of oil and vinegar subdues the bitterness, without reducing its digestive benefits.
Lettuce grows well in containers. All you need is something 6 to 8 inches deep.

Today you can find more than 1,000 named lettuce cultivars, which exhibit many leaf shapes and coloration. I love the red varieties most. The most common types available to the home garden are iceberg/crisphead, leaf/bunched, butterhead, romaine/cos, and Batavian/summer crisp/French crisp. I discovered the Batavian or summer crisp lettuce last year and fell in love with its beautiful, large heads. During recent reading I discovered that it tends to stand longer in summer heat without bolting, so it will be my main summer lettuce. The Batavian, romaine and butterhead lettuces are best set out as transplants (unless you like thinning out direct-sown seedlings) so that you can give them space, like about 12 inches between plants. This gives you beautiful large heads. A more unusual type is Celtuce, or asparagus lettuce, also called "woju" in Asia where it is a delicacy. This type is grown for its tasty stalks.

The varieties now in my garden are Red Salad Bowl and (green) Salad Bowl, which are leaf varieties; Buttercrunch and Yugoslavian (butterhead types, which produce loose heads); Jericho romaine (one of the heat-tolerant varieties); and Concept Batavian. In the past I've tried a crisphead variety, just for kicks, but it didn't want to grow for me at all. I'm not crying over it because I don't consider those varieties worth the trouble. Then, of course, wild prickly lettuce grows everywhere. While technically edible, I don't include it in my wild foods harvest.

Take a stroll through the seed catalog's lettuce selection. Perhaps you won't make lettuce a main part of your garden, but you'll certainly want to try all the different, beautiful varieties.

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