Eric’s Pet Plant: Lettuce ( Letuca sativa)
When our friend Eric isn’t managing Yale’s Marsh Garden or playing music, he’s cultivating his own garden, and – at least in this one instance – ignoring his own excellent advice. Unless he’s selling the stuff on the side or donating it to a food pantry, he has succumbed to temptation and planted too much lettuce all at once, just for the sheer beauty of it.
Lettuce (Lactuca sativa)
by Eric Larson
I really don’t look for opportunities to toot my own horn, although long-time readers will rightfully point out that every time I send one of these epistles, I’m noodling away on a plastic trumpet. Be that as it may, today’s column highlights a plant that I love to grow, and the image is of a patch of it growing in my back yard.
Last year, I began planting flowers in the five pots outside of the Whitneyville Food Center, the very best grocery store I have ever shopped in. The proprietor and I agreed on a modest proposal, and I planted five pots with (mostly) edible plants featured. The lettuce was a big hit, more commented upon than much more showy flowers.
At first I laughed this off, but then I began to wonder what elemental chord had been struck by this modest little plant. I surmise that the appreciation of the sight of leafy greens in spring is not just based on visual pleasure, but that there is some deep connection with the culinary delight and dietary necessity for the sometimes bitter but always wonderful lettuce.
Some dieticians maintain that whatever is in season is what our bodies have evolved to best deal with and use to full advantage: in fall and winter, heavier foods rich in carbohydrates, like pumpkins, potatoes and parsnips are what we crave and should eat; in spring, we move to the cleansing but still nutritious leafy greens, with peas and other legumes for protein for the hard work in the fields.
This simple approach to eating would necessarily aid the ‘eat locally’ movement, and would also make for, I admit, some very dull potlucks. I do not successfully subscribe to this regimen, preferring a pineapple once in a while, or an orange, or an apple out of season. But I do grow a garden, and lettuce is one of the stars.
Both the official genus name and the English common name derive from the Latin word lac, for milk, due to the milky sap that emits from the plant. This much-hybridized genus, with a number of general groupings, belongs to the Aster family, Asteraceae. When you see one bloom, you have waited too long to harvest, but you will see why it is grouped with the asters.
The relationship of lettuce with Homo sapiens dates back to antiquity. In a temple at Karnak, a carving depicts Senusret I offering milk to the god Min, whose sacred plant was lettuce. In ancient Egypt, it was considered an aphrodisiac, depicted so in The Contendings of Horus and Seth. The Greeks, much later, considered it a sleeping tonic, perhaps confusing the white sap of the plant with another latex-emitting plant, the Opium Poppy. Or maybe not.
There are about 7 groups of cultivated lettuce: Butterhead, which forms small heads with a delicate ‘buttery’ flavor; Chinese Lettuce, which is usually cooked, both leaf and stem, has a more bitter complex flavor and has long narrow leaves; Crisphead or Iceberg lettuce, my least favorite, was bred to be less bitter, but has the nutritional value of cardboard, but some do like it; Looseleaf has a mild flavor, does not form a head, and is less likely to ‘bolt’ or go to seed; Romaine, or Cos, grows to an oblong head, with sturdy leaves and a firm rib down the middle, and it too is tolerant of heat; Summer Crisp, or Batavian types form a somewhat dense head, intermediate between iceberg and looseleaf types.
Within these groupings are a plethora of varieties, with red, light green, speckled and other variations on color. Some have slightly different flavor or texture than the other members of their group, or perhaps are less prone to bolting.
Lettuce prefers sunny days in the seventies, with plenty of water. That’s the thing to remember. So spring, early summer, and fall are the best target times for lettuce harvest. Most varieties mature to harvest size in three to 6 weeks, depending on type and also whether you like the micro-greens of the very earliest harvest.
Sow the seed outdoors starting in early mid-spring. That’s late March here in New Haven, where temperatures are moderated by our proximity to the Sound (remember, we are the state where you can ‘See the Sound, but you can’t hear the “c”’). You can also plant lettuces indoors in trays of potting soil starting in February and transplant them out to the garden when soil temperatures have warmed.
Plant every two weeks thereafter until mid-June, although there are some summer-types that you can continue sowing right through the season here in the Northeast. Some of my readers in the Sweet Sunny South (several from Texas) should think about growing lettuce in the garden almost all year. With a bit of protection from cold, you could grow right through the winter, and with protection from sun, through all but the hottest part of summer.
Lettuce should be given ample but not excessive nutrition. I use chicken manure, compost and compost tea to give our lettuce what it needs. Give it plenty of water as well: for once, the adage about watering deeply and less frequently might not apply. As their roots are right at the surface, give lettuces water daily.
Start harvesting really whenever you feel hungry. Little lettuce leaves are a bit hard to wash, but they are wonderfully delicate in flavor. Ah yes, washing. I think this is the biggest bugaboo for people when considering making a salad from fresh greens.
I agree it is a bit of a pain in the butterhead to stand at the sink, checking each leaf for soil and critters, but if done with a Zen-like appreciation of the cycle of life to death, soil to stomach and your favorite National Public Radio program streaming to you, it can actually make the lettuce taste better.
As for critters, yes, there are a few. Slugs being the worst, I can tell you that the beer bait works well, but don’t use poison. The chemicals listed for slug control aren’t to be used in the vegetable garden. My lovely bride, Linda, read that Artemisia planted nearby fends off slugs.
If I find a slug when washing the lettuce, I dispose of it and the leaf on which I found it, and continue with the project. I shudder though when I remember my good friend and fabulous musician Patricia finding a slug in her salad. Sometimes even the best washing will miss the critical element. I did refrain from my usual comment about, ‘Better a slug in the salad than no meat at all.” I somehow knew better.
Note: It was a masterful editing job removing the evidence of my Appalachian roots from the photo. Let’s just say that the back yard is, like your sunny dispositioned correspondent who is half-Finnish, a ‘work in progress.’
Disclaimer: The opinions and thoughts expressed within these columns are not those of Yale University, Marsh Botanical Gardens, or Leslie Land. They are personal reflections on life, plants, humankind and the daily miracles that come my way.