Heirloom Lettuce Varieties
See your options for growing heirloom lettuce varieties as well as helpful information for planting lettuce.
August 15, 2013
By William Woys Weaver
Heirloom Vegetable Gardening by William Woys Weaver is the culmination of some thirty years of first-hand knowledge of growing, tasting and cooking with heirloom vegetables. A staunch supporter of organic gardening techniques, Will Weaver has grown every one of the featured 280 varieties of vegetables, and he walks the novice gardener through the basics of planting, growing and seed saving. Sprinkled throughout the gardening advice are old-fashioned recipes — such as Parsnip Cake, Artichoke Pie and Pepper Wine — that highlight the flavor of these vegetables. The following excerpt on heirloom lettuce varieties was taken from chapter 20, “Lettuces.”
Buy the brand new e-book of Weaver’s gardening classic in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Heirloom Vegetable Gardening.
To locate mail order companies that carry these heirloom lettuce varieties, use our Custom Seed and Plant Finder. Check out our collection of articles on growing and harvesting heirloom vegetables in Gardening With Heirloom Vegetables.
A Brief History of Heirloom Lettuce Varieties
In Greek mythology, the torrid love affair between the goddess Aphrodite and the dazzling youth Adonis ended in a gruesome salad. For after Aphrodite hid Adonis in a bed of lettuce, he was killed there by a wild boar. Adonis’s violent death was therefore connected in the ancient Greek mind with lettuce, which assumed the role of religious and cultural metaphor for “food for corpses” and, more broadly speaking, for male impotence (the core of the Adonis theme). For this reason, Athenaeus, the author/compiler of the classical work The Deipnosophists (the rambling dinner conversations of several learned epicures), devoted an entire chapter of table discussion to lettuce and its ability to render male lovemaking worthless. For the ancient Greeks, perfumes and spices were equated with virility and seduction. Lettuce was the opposite.
In this light it strikes me as curious that eating lettuce as a component of a voluptuous meal would gain favor at all, yet it did. About the time of the emperor Domitian (A.D. 81–96), it became fashionable among the Roman elite to serve a lettuce salad as an appetizer before the first course, a custom that we practice even to this day. Was the lettuce salad intended to act as an antidote to the passions that subsequent courses of meat might inflame? This may have been one of the medical purposes of the original leafy appetizer. Certainly, by the Roman era, lettuce had already reached Italy with fascinating baggage — cultural, medical, intellectual, and religious. Of all the European garden vegetables, its history is one of the most colorful.
Lettuce was first cultivated by the ancient Egyptians, and since it played a role in their religious rituals, they have left ample records in the form of wall paintings and tomb reliefs as to the nature of the lettuce they grew, some of the oldest images dating from as early as 2680 B.C. This was a variety of lettuce about 30 inches tall, like a giant head of romaine lettuce with pointed leaves. The drawing below is based on a tomb relief in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. The relief shows lettuce in such clear detail that it is possible to recreate its salient botanical features. To me, the lettuce resembles Lion’s Tongue on a much larger scale. In any case, Egypt perfected the cultivation of the tall or upright lettuces now known as cos or romaine, and this cultural knowledge was passed to the Greeks. The Romans in turn acquired lettuce culture from the Greeks, referring to the new plant as lactuca (which means “milk”) in reference to the white juice exuded by the stems. The word lactuca is now used by botanists to represent the genus to which lettuce belongs.
The Roman agriculturist Columella (A.D. 50) mentioned several varieties of lettuce, among them Caecilian (both red and green), Cappadocian, Baetican, and Cyprian. Some of the varieties we know today may descend from these old sorts. Columella and other writers who discussed lettuce were quick to point out the Romans ate lettuce raw only when it was very young; otherwise they cooked it like spinach and served it with an oil and vinegar dressing. The custom of cooking lettuce, or poaching it to be more accurate, was continued in many areas of post-Roman Europe, but in nearly every case, this was done only with the large cos types. Otherwise, the oil and vinegar dressing was poured hot over the lettuce, another serving method practiced by the Romans.
Medieval references to lettuce abound, especially as a medicinal herb. Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179), the famous practitioner of natural medicine, mentioned lettuce in her medical writings. Likewise, lettuce appeared in many of the earliest published herbals. Joachim Camerarius (1586) was one of the first authors to depict a small cabbaging lettuce of the tennisball type. Furthermore, he mentioned the three basic types of lettuce we know today: heading lettuce, loose-leaf lettuce, and the tall or cos sorts. Tall lettuces were referred to as cos because some of the earliest seed came to Europe from the Greek island of Cos. During the Byzantine period, Cos was a center of lettuce growing. Since this tall lettuce was first grown in papal gardens at Rome, the French called it romaine. In the 1880s market gardeners in the area around San Francisco began calling cos lettuces romaine, and the French name has now spread to the rest of the country. However, in older American garden books all romaine types are referred to as cos, and many old varieties from England, such as Bath Cos, still retain the older terminology.
Between Camerarius and the early eighteenth century, many of the basic heirloom types we know today evolved in France, Italy, and Holland. The Dutch in particular were active in creating many of the old standard varieties, and their influence survives in such varietal names as Brown Dutch and Early Dutch Butterhead. In the early eighteenth-century work called Adam’s Luxury and Eve’s Cookery (1744, 45–47), a number of familiar lettuce varieties were discussed, among them Brown Dutch, Green Capuchin, and Silesia. Brown Dutch is still available through Seed Savers Exchange, and Green Capuchin, with its deep green coarse leaves, is now known as Tennisball (black seed) and is taken up under the sketch on Salamander (page 185). Silesia has also undergone a name change and is now commonly called White-Seeded Simpson or Early Curled Simpson.
Volume 3 of Willich’s Domestic Encyclopaedia (1802, 89–90) enumerated many of the most popular lettuces of the day, names that were familiar to most early American gardeners. Among these were Silesia (one of the most popular), Imperial (still available), Royal Black, and Upright White Cos (the common green romaine lettuce of our supermarkets). Willich also pointed out that both Brown Dutch and Green Capuchin were extremely hardy and could be overwintered under straw, a handy piece of advice that I have put to the test several times and quite successfully. As cold-frame varieties, many of these old heirlooms are excellent. Obtaining seed is often another matter.
Lettuce seed is one of the bread-and-butter items of modern seed catalogs. Lettuce is easy to sell because it is easy to grow, and it is perennially popular as a vegetable in even the smallest of garden plots. Lettuce is one of the few vegetables that can be grown just about anywhere, on windowsills and balconies, on roof gardens, in flower pots by the kitchen door. As a result seedsmen have been more unscrupulous with lettuce then with many other vegetables, and this has made it difficult to sort out the histories of some of the most popular heirloom varieties today. In order to keep selling it, seedsmen have changed variety names often. The heirloom lettuce known as Hanson, which is distinct and unmistakable from any other lettuce, has sixteen commercial aliases. The unwitting gardener may buy these from different seedsmen on the presumption that they are distinct varieties, but this is not the case. They are identical, the same seed in different packets.
This practice of creating house aliases for well-known varieties arose in part as a means of deflecting attention from the fact that the seed house was selling a lettuce developed by a competitor. The present attempt to patent hybrids is a commercially motivated response to this sort of bewildering free-market switch-and-run that still takes advantage of the customer. When Salzer’s began selling Silesia (aka Early Curled Simpson) as German Butter Lettuce, sales rose. When word got out that this was the same old Simpson lettuce everyone knew, Salzer’s changed the name to LaCrosse Market Lettuce. This practice was so common among American seed houses that old seed catalogs can be used only with utmost caution when attempting to document heirloom varieties.
Several times in the past horticulturists have tackled the shifting sands of commercial lettuce terminology and, by growing out all the varieties side by side, were able to determine which were valid varieties and which were not. W. H. Bull of Hampden County, Massachusetts, undertook a useful growout for the American Garden in 1890, in particular taking note of the best of the varieties then available. He was thoroughly convinced that Boston Curled, Curled India, Hanson, and Simpson were too old-fashioned and obsolete. It is a commentary on his Victorian progressive-ness that these varieties are not only still with us but far more reliable than many of the highly inbred sorts presently on the market.
The most useful guide to heirloom lettuces, however, is Lester Morse’s Field Notes on Lettuce (1923), which resulted from field tests at the C. C. Morse & Company seed farm in the Santa Clara Valley, near San Francisco. This company was established in 1877 to raise seed for most of the major American seed companies in the country. The Morse field notes therefore form an unbiased overview of what was grown and how it compared side by side in the field. For heirloom lettuces developed before 1900 — my focus in this section of the book — Morse’s insights are valuable, and a careful reading will reveal many discrepancies between heirloom varieties of the past and what we are growing today under the same name. Furthermore, Morse noted that of the 1,100 lettuce varieties he could list by name, only 140 were truly distinct, if slight differences were allowed. In truth, the real number of pre-1900 lettuce varieties is probably about 75, the remainder being subvarieties or variant forms. A survey of lettuce varieties in France, Germany, and Holland in 1866 could confirm only 65 sorts after eliminating the synonyms, and even several of those were questionable.
Not only do American lettuces have large numbers of confusing aliases but foreign lettuces seem to change name every time they cross a border. Cappuccio ubriacona frastagliata (“drunken woman frizzy-headed”), a pink-red fringed Italian lettuce with a name I thoroughly enjoy, is also known as Rossa di Trento, the name of a popular Italian chicory. In France it has a completely different name. Likewise, the laitue lorthois of France is the Trocadero of England and the Big Boston of America. And so it goes. I have tried to provide some of the better-known aliases with all of my selections lest my readers be misled by something they see in a seed catalog.
One of the great difficulties in describing lettuce is that varietal differences are often visual, and it is almost impossible to verbalize subtleties apparent only to the human eye: tones of green, blushes of color, three-dimensional surface textures, details that do not transfer well into line art or color photography. Signe Sundberg-Hall, the artist who has worked closely with me on this book, has made the same observation. The only way to convey many of the features peculiar to lettuce is through the medium of watercolor. It is interesting that in the Album Vilmorin, where the artists could wash the lithographs with color, the lettuces reproduced convey a true sense of their appearance in the garden. In any case, most descriptive works on lettuce fall short in one way or another, no matter how detailed the botanical terminology. Quite simply, lettuces are beautiful, Adonislike, the butterflies of the vegetable garden in terms of their fleeting beauty. They are best studied firsthand.
Nevertheless, lettuce growers use certain basic terms to qualify lettuces by type, terms that imply a certain physical appearance of the lettuce at its peak for harvesting. The first of these terms is curled-heading, which means that the edges of the leaves are curled or crumpled and that the lettuce forms a head or ball when mature. Curled-nonheading is the same leaf type, but the head is loose, forming a bunch like Black-Seeded Simpson. Cabbage or butterhead lettuces all have flat leaves, usually thick, with the interior leaves appearing oily. Early Dutch Butterhead, one of my favorite winter lettuces, has leaves that appear dappled with dark brown wax. It is this waxiness that protects the lettuce during cold weather. Cos is the general trade term for all upright or tall lettuces, the varieties we now call romaine. The last type is called cutting lettuce, which is loose, leafy lettuce cut young for salads, what the Italians call lattuga a cespo da taglio (“cut and cut again”). Cutting lettuces were introduced into England in 1827 and into this country about 1829. The best-known variety of cutting lettuce introduced at that time was laitue épinarde, a name rendered into English as Spanish lettuce. Today, this is known as oak leaf lettuce.
Another way to differentiate lettuce is to categorize it by the color of its seed. Most seed is described as either black or white, although in fact there is gray seed and brown seed. Some brown seed is called yellow in old garden books if the brown is a light shade. I would consider the brown-seeded varieties to be a distinct category halfway between the black-and white-seeded sorts, but this is not universally accepted. Each seed color has produced a line of lettuces that is genetically related; sometimes lettuces have the identical appearance but different color seed. This seed color difference is a true marker for deciding which variety is under discussion. Therefore, in all of my sketches of specific lettuce varieties, I also provide the seed color. The eighteenth-century lettuce called Green Capuchin had black seed; it is not Green Capuchin if the seed is white or some other color.
Saving seed from lettuce is extremely easy on the one hand and messy on the other. First, the lettuce must be allowed to bolt or produce flower heads. Seed should only be saved from lettuces most true to type, and which bolt last. Saving seed from lettuces that are quick to bolt will only produce a strain that runs to seed quickly, especially during hot weather. The flower heads of most lettuces are about 3 feet tall and made up of tiny clusters of yellow blossoms. Seed is ready to harvest when the plants begin to yellow and the flower heads form “feathers” like dandelions. Strip the plants of their leaves and cut off the flower heads, turning them upside down in brown paper bags. Mark and date the bags, then set them in a dry, airy room away from the direct sun. Let the seed mature about a month before removing it from the seedheads.
To do this, roll the dried flowers between the fingers over a large work bowl. Feathers will fly everywhere (this is the messy part). The seed will drop into the bowl along with feathers and debris, which must be separated. Sift off debris larger than the seeds, then winnow the seed out of doors, blowing gently to lift the light materials away from the seed. If this is done carefully, the seed should separate, and the yield will be large. From eight to ten choice lettuces, I have harvested as much as 1/2 cup of seed, enough to sow an entire field. Some varieties have tiny seed or low seed yields, but once the seed-saving technique is mastered, there will be no reason to buy lettuce seed again, except to acquire new varieties.
Lettuces do cross. The controversy among horticulturists is just how far to distance the varieties. Some gardeners space their plants 5 feet. This is risky. I would suggest 20 feet. Furthermore, never save seed from volunteers that come up in the garden. Volunteers are an inevitable byproduct of seed saving, and some old varieties like Stoke, an English lettuce dating from pre-1840, are also self-sowing. In either case, do not save seed from plants that come up on their own. Their seed purity is questionable, and since lettuces are notorious for throwing sports and reversions to ancestral types, volunteers are only interesting if they look like a promising new variety worth cultivating as an experiment. Many heirloom varieties came into being in this very manner — Hanson was the product of a cross that occurred in a kitchen garden in Maryland. It is also necessary to remove any wild lettuce that is growing in the vicinity of the garden. Wild lettuce (Lactuca serriola) is found throughout the United States and will cross with garden lettuce under certain circumstances. The resulting cross will be tough and bitter. Likewise, Celtuce or Asparagus Lettuce should be isolated from other lettuces because it belongs to the same species, and while it is of Asian origin, there is a possibility it will cross with the leafing sorts. Again, 20 feet is a safe distance. Seed is saved from it in the same manner as other lettuces. All lettuce seed will store for three years under optimal conditions. If seed accumulates, share it with friends. Renew the supply often.
When planting lettuce, it is a huge mistake to follow the instructions on seed packets that advise planting it thickly in a row and then thinning. This is a great way to waste seed and end up with crowded lettuces. Only the cutting lettuces can be planted this way successfully; the others should be started in flats, then thinned into large flats. When the seedlings are large enough to plant in the garden — after the fifth or sixth leaf — space them evenly about 8 inches apart or more, depending on the variety. I space some of the large heading lettuces 14 inches apart. That way, they have plenty of room and will form huge, perfectly shaped heads. Lettuce that is crowded together attracts slugs and may be subject to stem rot at the base. Lettuce needs air circulation like any other plant. Furthermore, the more sunlight that strikes the leaves, the better the color and the higher the concentration of nutrients. The blanched white centers of lettuces like Iceberg contain very little food value.
Heirloom Lettuce Varieties
In 1930 the U.S. Department of Agriculture reissued Farmer’s Bulletin 1609, Lettuce Growing, and listed the leading varieties of lettuce then under cultivation. Among the commercial varieties grown on a large scale, there were only six: Big Boston, Hanson, Iceberg, May King, New York, and Salamander. All of these are heirlooms — American garden classics in their own way — and I have included lettuces of this type in my profiles.
'Bath Cos' Lettuce
Lactuca sativa var. romana
There are two types of this eighteenth-century English variety, one white-seeded, the other black-seeded. The white-seeded variety is generally called Brown Cos. Its leaves are cool gray-green, deeply toothed, and tinged with red in the edges and veins as well as the stems. The leaves do not wrap tightly into a head except at the very center. The leaves turn pale brown where tinged by the sun, but this variety is normally tied up to blanch it a few days before harvesting. A well-formed head is about 14 inches in diameter. Plants should be well spaced in the garden to account for this. Normally, this variety is planted in the late summer to be ready for harvest in the fall. It is very hardy and will overwinter in parts of the South.
The black-seeded variant, called Black-Seeded Bath Cos, is smaller and dark reddish brown. It is also raised as a fall lettuce and is known in England as Coolings Leviathan. The leaves of this sort overlap differently from the other, somewhat like a rosebud that is opening partway. It also squatter and slower growing.
Another old cos lettuce from the same period is the Spotted Cos or Aleppo (white-seeded), mentioned as early as the seventeenth century. This is a shorter type of romaine lettuce with large, floppy leaves of a bright green color. The leaf surface is savoyed (covered with bubbles) and heavily speckled with reddish brown spots. It measures about 16 inches in diameter and is considered the tall form of the French Laitue Sanguine (white-seeded).
'Big Boston' or 'Trocadero' Lettuce
This white-seeded variety was introduced in this country in 1887 from France. It was first sold commercially in 1890 by Peter Henderson & Company of New York, and since Mr. Henderson thought it looked like Boston Market, only much larger, he created the American name Big Boston. Today it is widely circulated under Hendersons name and under its original French name, Laitue Lorthois.
The lettuce is a heading type, medium large in size, and globular when well formed. The leaves are a light green color, tinged with brown on the margins of the outer leaves. The leaves are smooth with a bright sheen, very brittle and quite tender, good qualities for salads. The inner part of the head is golden yellow.
Other commercial aliases of this lettuce are Tait’s Forcing White, Giant White Forcing, Tait’s Pride of the Point (Tait got tired of the first name), Schisler’s New Market, Stokes Standard, and Standard Head Lettuce.
'Black-Seeded Simpson' Lettuce
One of the most famous of all American lettuces, this variety was introduced by Peter Henderson & Company of New York in the 1870s. It is a nonheading type, very crisp and light yellowish green with large leaves. Of all the lettuces listed here, this is the most difficult to keep true when saving seed. Also, in spite of its popularity with kitchen gardeners, it rots easily at the base of the stem and is sensitive to radical weather changes. This is counterbalanced by its quick growth and fine quality at maturity. Bon Ton is a selection of Black-Seeded Simpson, identical in all respects except small size.
Commercial aliases include: First Early (Great Northern Seed Company), Earliest Cutting (Landreth), Carter’s Long Stander, and Longstreath’s Earliest.
'Boston Market' Lettuce
This is the same as White-Seeded Tennisball. Refer to my discussion of tennisball lettuces under Loos Tennisball. Many grocers in this country call this variety Boston lettuce as though it is a generic type, a practice that is somewhat misleading. Vilmorin (1885, 307) considered it nearly the same as a Dutch variety called Seelander Latouw, a possibility in physical appearance only, for the Dutch sort has black seed, not white.
'Brauner Trotzkopf' Lettuce
This is a distinct American variety also called Hardhead and Weber’s Brown Head. The seed is white. Its exact origin is not presently known, but David Landreth & Sons listed it in the firm’s 1875 German-language seed catalog. It is considered a German-American variety, a cabbaging or butterhead type similar in size to Tom Thumb, measuring 6 to 7 inches in diameter. It appears to be a dwarf version of Large Brown Winter lettuce. Large Brown Winter (white seed) was known to Fearing Burr, but not this form of it. Vilmorin (1885, 295) called it Early Cabbage or Dutch Butterhead. The leaves are crimped and dappled with red brown, which darkens to maroon toward the center. The surface of the leaves is shiny, as though waxed. The leaves have greenish white edges and ribs. It is a very handsome lettuce when mixed with Tom Thumb, and because it is a winter variety, it thrives in cold frames. It is also extremely slow to bolt.
'Brown Dutch' Lettuce
The standard variety is black-seeded, nonheading, medium in size, and handsome deep lime green, tinged with bluish green in the center. It is described by the Abbé Rozier (1785, 215) under the name Laitue brune de Hollande. The leaves are large and floppy, with ruffled edges tinged with pink or rose, and tend to lie flat against the ground in heads measuring about 12 inches across. The back side of the leaf has small hairlike spines on the rib. Brown Dutch (white-seeded) is identical in appearance but as a documented variety is much older, for it is mentioned by Stephen Switzer (1731, 21) and other early horticultural authors. The white-seeded sort is often called Sugar Lettuce or Swede in old garden books. It was one of the most popular fall and winter lettuces in colonial America. Spotted Brown Dutch (black-seeded) is the same as the old variety known as Palatine, Brown Genoa, and Haarlem. It dates from the seventeenth century.
'Celtuce' or 'Asparagus' Lettuce
Lactuca sativa var. asparagina
The accepted history of this useful and distinctive Asian variety is that it was introduced into France in the 1880s but did not reach the United States until 1938. W. Atlee Burpee is credited with commercializing it here in 1942. Quite the contrary, Celtuce came to the attention of American horticulturists in the 1850s and was grown by a small circle of specialists since that time. It was introduced to them by the Mennonite plant collector Jacob B. Garber (1800–1886) of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Garber also figured out that it was the stem of the plant that was eaten, not the leaves, even though the leaves make a perfectly respectable salad.
Under the heading “Hoo Sung” (today written as woh sun), Garber published an article about his experience with celtuce in the Florist and Horticultural Journal (1854, 248). According to Garber’s own account, he had raised the vegetable for a number of years from seed originally obtained from a Dr. Kennicott in Illinois. Dr. Kennicott might rightly be called the introducer of Celtuce, because it was he who brought seed from China in the 1840s. But it was Jacob Garber who discovered how to use it: “The stems being very tender, and when from a quarter to half an inch in diameter, and eighteen inches to two feet high, may be cut into lengths and cooked in the same manner as asparagus”.
Celtuce is raised like lettuce, but because it is a large, spreading plant, it should be spaced about 16 inches apart. The young leaves may be harvested as greens, but when the plant bolts to produce flowers, it is the stem that is considered the best part. Harvesting the stems, of course, reduces the seed crop, so it is best to set aside several plants for seed purposes. The flowers are yellow like lettuce flowers, and the seed is harvested in the same manner.
There are several distinct varieties of Celtuce, which unfortunately do not have distinguishing names outside of Asia. There are broad-leafed sorts resembling tobacco, speckled varieties, and some types with long, pointed leaves like fingers. Many of these are available through seed-saving networks, but very few American gardeners grow them for their stems. Since Celtuce bears hot weather well, it is often grown as a midseason substitute for salad lettuce.
'Curled India' Lettuce
Lactuca sativa var. capitata
There is a great deal of confusion about this early American lettuce with brown seeds. In garden literature, it is often treated as though it is Curled India Head lettuce, which it is not, since this is an old alias of Iceberg or Marblehead Mammoth. It is not the same as India either, although it is a form of it. From all appearances, it is a cross between India and Beauregard. It has the crispness and heading quality of Iceberg and the sharply toothed leaf margin of Beauregard. White’s Gardening for the South (1868, 243) described Curled India as light yellow-green and highly curled, which is true. Its leaves are blistered and shiny, as though glazed with ice. It is an excellent summer lettuce and far superior in quality to Iceberg. Its smaller size makes it ideal for kitchen gardens where space may present a problem.
'Gotte Jaune d’Or' Lettuce
Since this variety is now widely circulated under its French name, I have listed it that way, but it is a well known tennisball type identified in old garden books as White-Seeded Tennisball, Golden Tennisball, and Golden Forcing. As might be ascertained from the name, this lettuce was once popular as a cold-frame sort as well as a hothouse variety. The Abbé Rozier (1785, 216) remarked that it was grown extensively between November and February as a forcing lettuce in the north of France but was completely unknown in the south of that country. Due to its small size, it is extremely easy to grow in flats and for this reason was used like Tom Thumb. The heads measure no more than 8 inches in diameter. Even though this is a tennisball type and technically should form a head about that size, the head of this lettuce is loose, more twisted than curled, with a “cowlick” in the center. The leaves are tender, bright yellow-green, and crinkled. Right before the lettuce bolts, it forms a tight head like a cabbage, which lasts only a day or two. This is considered its peak stage for harvesting. Fearing Burr does not mention this variety in his Field and Garden Vegetables of America, but the Vilmorins recognized it in the 1880s. It is believed to be a Dutch variety developed for hot salads. It was introduced in this country by Peter Henderson & Company of New York. It is a poor producer of seed, so more plants (at least eight to twelve) are required for seed-saving purposes.
Remarks about this lettuce in the Vilmorin garden book (1885) clearly indicate that the French were not getting pure seed. Even today lettuces sold under the name of Hanson will vary greatly. This variety was introduced in 1871 by Henry A. Dreer of Philadelphia, and I have chosen to show one of Dreer’s original advertisements, since it illustrates Hanson at its best. Any lettuce sold as Hanson that does not form a head as shown is not Hanson. Dreer obtained the lettuce from a Colonel Hanson in Maryland, who stated that it had been growing in his family’s garden for many years and that his grandfather had imported it from abroad. More likely Hanson is a cross between Curled India and Early Curled Simpson, since it bears characteristics of both. Hanson is white-seeded, light green in color, with curly leaves that are fringed on the edges. As can be seen from the old wood engraving, it is a heading lettuce, extremely crisp and excellent in sandwiches. It withstands the heat well but is often subject to slug damage.
There are several commercial aliases for this variety. The most commonly appearing names are Ewing’s Excelsior, Gardener’s Favorite, King of the Market, Los Angeles Market, Louisville Market Forcing Lettuce, Ryder’s Green Globe, Toronto Gem, Toronto Market, and Nonpareil.
'Hubbard’s Market' Lettuce
This old and popular white-seeded variety was developed in Chatauqua County, New York, by a market gardener whose name was given to the variety when it was released by Chase Brothers of Rochester. It is a cabbaging or butterhead lettuce with dark green crumpled leaves. The edges of the leaves are straight. It is now often sold as White Summer Cabbage, although the original Hubbard strain was darker green and larger in size than the old variety known as White Summer Cabbage. It is an excellent lettuce for summer, especially in the North. In the South, I would recommend it as a fall lettuce. The seed is white.
Hubbard’s Market has thirty-five commercial aliases, among them All-Year-Around (white seed), Eichling’s Early Market, White-Seeded German, Ullathorne’s Memphis Lettuce, Top Notch, Peer of All, and Hollow-Leaved Butter.
Lactuca sativa var. capitata
There is a code of disdain among foodies in this country for the very old American lettuce variety we now call Iceberg. Its association with the worst sorts of American fast foods has been responsible for this, yet homegrown Iceberg is one of our finest and most reliable summer lettuces. Its early American progenitor was Ice (white-seeded), which began appearing in seed lists in the 1820s. The Gardener’s Magazine (1827, 436) announced it as a variety “new” to English growers and identified it as a variety of American origin. Unfortunately, the developer of this lettuce is not presently known, nor are the circumstances surrounding its creation. It was sometimes called India Head or Marblehead Mammoth and often confused with Curled India, which is similar and equally old.
Iceberg is a heading variety of a medium green color. The leaves are wavy and fringed, the margins tinged with brown. It forms a compact head that is white inside; it is usually the head, stripped of its outer leaves, that is seen in the markets. There are many selections of Iceberg sold as distinct varieties. Imperial Valley Iceberg, raised in Southern California, and Mountain Iceberg, grown in Colorado, are regional names for New York, not true Iceberg. New York (white-seeded) was introduced in 1886 by Peter Henderson & Company. In France it was known as chou de Naples blonde, and in England as Neapolitan. It resembles Iceberg in some ways, although the head is flatter, the color much deeper green, and the leaves only slightly curled along the edges. Batavian Red-Fringed lettuce is true Iceberg, but with considerable red coloring.
'Loos Tennisball' Lettuce
There are three recognized tennisball varieties: white-seeded, black-seeded, and stone. The white-seeded tennisball is one of the oldest cultivated sorts in this country and is generally known by the name Boston Market. In France, it is sold commercially as Victoria, not to be confused with the German Victoria, which is a different variety and known in this country as North Pole (white-seeded). Boston Market was grown as a forcing lettuce in cold frames and hothouses.
Black-seeded tennisball is the same as Salamander. Stone tennisball (black seed) is a distinct English variety similar to Tom Thumb, but darker green, larger, and more savoyed. It is the same as the French Tom Thumb and similar to Stonehead Green (white seed). Loos Tennisball (gray-seeded) is probably a cross of one or more of these types, for it is intermediate between the dwarf character of Tom Thumb and a butterhead. The heads of Loos Tennisball measure about 7 inches in diameter and form loose, soft, fluffy balls. It is an extremely attractive sort introduced about 1853. Since it can be planted close together, it is ideal for small gardens.
The tennisball lettuces that formed small tight heads were often pickled in salt brine in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for use during the winter. The following recipe is taken from Adam’s Luxury and Eve’s Cookery (1744, 142–43). The expression “unsalt” meant to soak the vegetables in several changes of fresh water to remove the saltiness. Cos lettuces could also be preserved in this manner.
To Keep Lettuce
Choose the hardest, take off the large Leaves, and blanch them in Water, and drain them. Then stick them with Gloves, and season them with Pepper. Salt, Vinegar, and Bay leaf. Cover them well, and when you would use them, unsalt them and stew them.
There are two variations of this lettuce, a green and a bronze (both with dark brown seed). The green is commonly described as the original variety, but this does not tally with early catalog descriptions or with Lester Morse’s Field Notes on Lettuce (1923). The original introduction was the bronze sort first marketed by Peter Henderson & Company of New York. Prior to introducing it (Henderson also named it), Henderson had distributed seed to a number of horticulturists, so the lettuce appeared almost simultaneously in several catalogs. William Henry Maule of Philadelphia introduced it in 1898, and this is more or less the accepted date of its commercialization. It is now circulated as Mignonette Bronze; the other later subvariety is called Mignonette Green.
Both sorts are curled heading lettuces with highly crumpled leaves. The heads are about 7 inches in diameter, compact, with the outer leaves heavily savoyed. The bronze variety is a brownish color, referred to as “russet-colored” in old catalogs, and tinged with dark green. It is quite distinctive, hardy, and fairly drought resistant. Plants should be spaced 12 inches apart for the best shaped heads. Due to the tightness of the heads, it is often necessary to slit them two or three times so that the seed stalk can form. The green sort is prone to slugs and therefore should not be grown on heavy clay soil.
'Oak Leaf' Lettuce
Vilmorin listed this lettuce under the name laitue épinarde (black-seeded) as early as 1771. The Abbé Rozier (1785, 210) listed two distinct varieties, one with white seed and one with black. Both were well known in France as cutting lettuces, but were not introduced into England until 1827. Cutting lettuces were not popular in the United States until later in the nineteenth century, although some individuals cultivated them from imported seed. Thomas Jefferson raised a cutting variety called Endive-Leaved (laitue chicorée).
The oak leaf sort is a pale green color and forms a rosette some 12 to 24 inches across. The leaves are heavily lobed and undulating. This variety is extremely hardy and can be overwintered in cold frames in the North or in the open in the Deep South.
There were two American varieties of the oak leaf sort, one called Philadelphia Oak Leaf (white-seeded), the other Baltimore Oak Leaf. The Philadelphia variety was developed in the 1840s. It was darker green than the French oak leaf and characterized by a lobe resembling a finger on the end of each leaf. The French lettuce called Cocarde has similar lobing. The Baltimore variety was pale green and more of a cabbaging type, with round, lobed leaves.
'Red Besson' Lettuce
This is one of the most handsome of all the lettuces I grow and a great favorite of visitors to my garden. It is known in France as Besson rouge or Merveille des Quatre Saisons (black seed — actually a dark black-brown). The lettuce is a cabbaging or butterhead type with heads 12 inches in diameter. The leaves are wine red and savoyed, and they darken as the lettuce matures. The undersides of the leaves are pink, as are the stems. This variety was illustrated in the Album Vilmorin (1882, 33) with extraordinary veracity to color, indeed one of the finest lettuce illustrations of the period. This lettuce was not listed in American catalogs until late in the nineteenth century, usually under the name Continuity. For the best-formed heads, plant individual lettuces 14 inches apart.
Salamander was one of the most popular lettuces of the nineteenth century. It was listed by B. K. Bliss & Sons of New York in 1871 under its British name All-Year-Around. Landreth and several other large seed houses also listed it that way, even though it had been grown in this country for many years as Black-Seeded Tennisball, and in the eighteenth century as Green Capuchin. That earlier name was derived from capucine, the French term for nasturtium or Indian cress (page 326). Correctly speaking, All-Year-Around, the name by which the lettuce is best known today, was a British strain of Black-Seeded Tennisball that headed two weeks earlier; otherwise it was identical. In the United States, the lettuce was widely cultivated on Long Island for the New York market, even though lettucemen always recommended it as a forcing lettuce rather than a field variety. In the field the green is deeper, and the leaves tend toward bitterness if the weather is unseasonably warm.
Salamander is considered a cabbaging variety, as shown in the woodcut. It has thick, savoyed, deep green leaves. The young leaves sometimes have small spines on the outside edges. White-seeded Salamander is a distinctly different variety, synonymous with Hubbard’s Market Lettuce and White Summer Cabbage.
There are over forty-nine commercial aliases for this lettuce, all of which Lester Morse grew side by side in his lettuce trials in California. Some of the better known aliases are Eclipse, Farquhar’s Long Standing, Fearnaught, Bridgeman’s Large Butterhead, Northrup-King’s Market Gardener, Sutton’s Matchless, Sherman’s Newport Head, Tender and True, and XXX Solid Head.
'Silesia' or 'Early Curled Simpson' Lettuce
Dating from the seventeenth century, Early Curled Silesia (white-seeded) is one of the oldest cultivated varieties of nonheading lettuce in this country. It forms a tight bunch of light green crumpled leaves about 12 to 14 inches across. It is quick growing and very hardy. It was also known as Curled German Batavian. Today it is generally called White-Seeded Simpson, a name that came into use in the 1850s when the Simpson strain was introduced; it matured earlier than the older sorts. Due to its hardiness, this lettuce was preferred for overwintering. It can be grown in cold frames or simply covered with straw. Hard freezing does not kill it.
Among the Pennsylvania Dutch, this lettuce was normally planted in the old cucumber beds in August and September in order to have a succession of harvests through December. It was often planted together with Brown Dutch, Landis Winter Lettuce, and Speckled Lettuce.
This type of lettuce has been grown in this country since the eighteenth century. There were three basic sorts, all rather similar in general appearance, but on close examination, their differences were enough to qualify them as distinct varieties. Today, they are mistakenly treated as one, and it is quite possible that seed switches have unwittingly taken place, which only muddles the issue further.
Willich’s Domestic Encyclopaedia (1802, 3:90) observed that if Brown Dutch and Black-Seeded Tennisball were planted together and allowed to cross, “The future produce of seed will be a new and very excellent kind of this plant, forming extraordinary large heads, the leaves of which are sprinkled with deep red spots, and uncommonly tender.” This appears to be the method by which our early American variety was created.
Amelia Simmons mentioned only one lettuce variety in her American Cookery (1796, 13–14): “The purple spotted leaf is generally the tenderest, and free from bitter.” She was referring to a variety of speckled lettuce referred to in old garden books as Spotted Butter (white seed) or Dutch Speckled Butter, a variety thought to have originated in Holland. It is a cabbaging or butterhead type, light green in color, and tinged with brown. The leaves are speckled with reddish brown, crumpled, and straight edged. It was a favorite hothouse lettuce in Philadelphia during the early nineteenth century, and I can attest to the fact that it thrives in greenhouse conditions. It is even less prone to aphids than many lettuces. This is the same lettuce noted in the Gardener’s Magazine (1837, 13), which stated that seed from France had been distributed some years earlier to members of the London Horticultural Society. Judging from historical evidence, this lettuce was much more popular in America than in England and was grown here much earlier. It was known commercially in this country as Philadelphia Dutch Butter, although David Landreth & Sons sold it as Indispensible. Hornberger’s Dutch Butter was considered the best selection of this speckled sort.
The speckled lettuce of this sketch is a variety preserved among the Mennonites of Ontario, Canada, and accessioned by Seed Savers Exchange in 1983. That seed originated with Urias Martin of Waterloo, Ontario, but is generally thought to have come from Pennsylvania. This is a butterhead cabbaging lettuce with somewhat blistered or savoyed leaves, as shown in the drawing. It fits the description of the commercial variety known as Golden Spotted (white seed), introduced in 1880. The spotting is brownish red, similar to markings on a quail’s egg. It is the same variety as Thorburn’s Orchid. It is not true sanguine ameliore, with which it is often equated.
Sanguine ameliore (white-seeded) is an old French variety often mistaken for the other two. It has a deep reddish brown mottling clustered thickly toward the center of each tongue-shaped leaf. Most significant, the interior of the head is pink; only in this variety is this the case. Sanguine ameliore was introduced in this country in 1906 by C. C. Morse & Company of San Francisco under the commercial name Strawberry Cabbage Lettuce.
Introduced by W. Atlee Burpee in 1886, this delightful white-seeded lettuce originated in northern New York State. It is a curled, nonheading type, medium green in color, tinged with reddish brown. The leaves are upright and outwardly spreading, and rolled over along the edge, as shown in the old wood engraving on page 187. Although it was considered a good hot-weather lettuce in the North, it was generally grown as a fall salad lettuce, since it is slow to bolt and, because of its hardiness, will not suffer from light frosts. This variety deserves to be better known.
'Tom Thumb' (Wheeler’s) Lettuce
Tom Thumb (black seed) was introduced by the English firm of H. Wheeler & Sons in 1858, although Ipswich seedsman William Thompson was growing laitue gotte à lente monter (the French name given to Tom Thumb by Vilmorin) as early as 1850. The French variety called Tom Pouce, which is the French counterpart to the English variety, is larger, darker green, and more savoyed than Tom Thumb. It is also the same lettuce as Stone Tennisball. In order to keep all of this straight and not produce confusion (!), the Tom Thumb introduced in 1858 is generally called Wheeler’s Tom Thumb. It was introduced into the United States in 1868 by James J. H. Gregory of Marblehead, Massachusetts, but was never popular in this country.
As its name would imply, this is a dwarf lettuce of the cabbaging or butterhead type with dark green leaves that are heavily crumpled. It heads into a fine little ball. It is easy to grow in hothouses and cold frames and does not require a great deal of space, since the heads measure from 3 to 4 inches in diameter. The lettuce makes an excellent garnish for buffet tables, and since it thrives in cold frames, it can keep the kitchen well supplied with lettuces all winter. Its commercial aliases in this country were Landreth’s Forcing, Holmes’s Forcing, and Early Green Stone (black seed).
'White Paris Cos' Lettuce
Lactuca sativa var. romana
This white-seeded lettuce is generally planted in the early spring so that it heads before the onset of hot weather. It is the most common of all the romaine types grown in this country and probably one of the most attractive as well. It is an eighteenth-century variety, sold in this country as early as 1802 by Bernard M’Mahon of Philadelphia. M’Mahon sold it under the name White Cos; in France it is known as blonde maraichère.
This variety is characterized by tall, narrow, upwardly pointing leaves with heavy white ribs. The leaves are blunt and rounded on the ends, light green in color, with the inner leaves folding around one another. A well-formed head may weigh anywhere from 5 to 6 pounds. This lettuce is a heavy drinker and will never develop its famous crispness unless it is kept well watered. This is also one of the popular lettuces that was used for stewing, especially if the heads were tied up in the garden and blanched before harvest.
The following recipe is taken from Baron Brisse’s 366 Menus (1886, 32). It surprises me that the baron would cook his lettuce for 2 hours; 30 minutes is quite sufficient. But the process is not boiling, rather sweating, with a very small amount of water. This is the reason for the buttered parchment paper, which prevents the lettuces from sticking to the pan.
Laitues au jus (Stewed Lettuce)
Clean, blanch, and trim your lettuces, tie them in bunches, putting two or three together, simmer for two hours in a saucepan with stock, a bouquet of herbs, chopped onions, salt, and pepper, line the saucepan with buttered paper. When cooked untie the lettuces and serve with their own sauce, which must be reduced and passed through a tammy.
Find seeds for these heirlooms and more with our Custom Seed and Plant Finder.
Buy the brand new e-book of Weaver’s gardening classic in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Heirloom Vegetable Gardening.
Photos and Illustrations Courtesy William Woys Weaver.