Grow, Harvest and Cook Different Types of Lettuce

Explore the possibilities different types of lettuce have to offer with this comprehensive review of their cultivation and use.

| January/February 1989

Lettuce is easy to grow. There are many different types of lettuce — dozens and dozens — to choose from, and, with proper planning, this traditionally cool-weather crop can be cultivated almost year-round in much of the country. When served straight from the garden, lettuce, like freshly picked corn, has a sweet flavor and crispy texture that can’t be matched by store-bought versions.

Considering all this, I’m always astounded at the prices shoppers are willing to pay for the very limited lettuce choices offered by most supermarkets. With a little effort, almost anyone — even city dwellers — can enjoy homegrown salad because this compact vegetable can be raised in pots, window boxes, flower beds, or tiny plots of earth.

The word lettuce comes from the Old French laitues, meaning “milky,” which refers to the white sap that is particularly evident as the plant passes its prime. The generic name for lettuce, Lactuca sativa, reflects this, too (lac being the Latin for “milk”). Lettuce is thought to have originated in the Middle East, and it owes its ease of cultivation to an Asian ancestor common to all Lactucas, the weed known as prickly lettuce (L. Serriola). As early as 550 B.C., this vegetable, then known as kahn, adorned the tables of Persian monarchs, and King Nebuchadnezzar grew it in his famous hanging gardens of Babylon. The Chinese and the Greeks (including Aristotle) lauded its virtues, and the Romans liked it served as the first course of their sumptuous meals. (They considered it both an aphrodisiac and a sedative.) Centuries later, Columbus took lettuce seeds with him to the Bahamas, and the plants were also grown at Henry VIII’s Hampton Court, though his sixth wife, Catherine Parr, had her lettuce shipped in from Holland.

Lettuce Varieties to Grow

Over the hundreds of years that lettuce has been cultivated, several distinct types have evolved. With the exception of crisp-head (often called iceberg) lettuce, this favorite ingredient of many salads contains high amounts of vitamin A, more vitamin B than most vegetables, and a little vitamin C.

Cabbage like crisp-head lettuce is the kind most often found in supermarkets. Though it’s the least nutritious, the ability of some cultivars to stand up to hot weather and to keep and ship well has led to their being preferred by commercial growers. Great Lakes in particular is tolerant of hot weather (matures in 90 days), and Premier Great Lakes is resistant to both heat and tip burn.

Romaine, or cos, lettuce — whose tall, crunchy, spoon-shaped leaves allow in enough light to boost its nutritional value — was developed in Italy and introduced to France by Rabelais. Heat-tolerant and easy to grow, the very big-leaved types produce crisp, white hearts that can be substituted for celery. ‘Paris White’ (80 days), which has a flavor like Brussels chicory, is a favorite and very reliable cos variety. Other popular romaines are ‘Dark Green Cos,’ ‘Parris Island Cos’ and an early dwarf with a sweet taste called ‘Little Gem.’

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