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Beyond Iceberg: Heirloom Lettuce Varieties Offer Color and Flavor

These heirloom lettuce varieties will help you grow the greens you’ll love to eat.

| March/April 2012

  • Heirloom Lettuce
    Forellenschluss or Flashy Trout’s Back lettuce is an Austrian heirloom with a rich buttery flavor.
    Janet Horton
  • Heirloom Lettuce Varieties
    A French heirloom, Montpellier Red Butterhead lettuce grows best in the early spring or late summer when temperatures are lower.
    Rebekah Sell

  • Heirloom Lettuce
  • Heirloom Lettuce Varieties

Lettuce is the “green” most of us are comfortable eating with some regularity, and consumption is still dominated by that old standby: iceberg lettuce. Iceberg lettuce is a relative newcomer, introduced during the late 19th century. The first known cultivars of heirloom lettuce varieties were probably the looser head types like romaine, grown in Egypt as early as 4500 B.C.

Lettuce (Lactuca sativa) is derived from the wild plant Lactuca serriola, a coarse annual or biennial native to Europe and found worldwide, possessing vague resemblance to the domesticated forms we commonly eat. It is a member of the sunflower or composite family.

While technically edible, heirloom lettuce has prickly leaves and sap concentrations that make it relatively unpalatable, especially uncooked. When cooked, all but the youngest plants need two changes of water. Several native species from North America are similar and edible. Personally, I’d stick with the garden type; yet, hunter-gatherers foraged for wild lettuce plants until ancient Greek times. Early man had a considerably higher tolerance for bitterness than we do, although many people still like that taste in “hoppy” ale.

Lettuce comes in a variety of forms. The main types of lettuce are loose-leaf varieties, not forming a true head; butterhead or cabbage with very loose heads and soft yellow-green leaves characterized by the small Bibb and later big-headed Boston lettuce, a 19th-century introduction; cos or romaine, generally forming loose upright heads; heading lettuce, forming true solid heads, particularly iceberg; and stem lettuce, otherwise known as celtuce, with a long edible stem and leafy top.

Lettuce’s long history

An Egyptian wall fragment from the third millennium B.C. portrays Min, the god of fertility, in what appears to be a field of lettuces identifiably romaine. Cos, the alternative name used for romaine lettuces, comes from the Greek Island of Kos, which was cultivation center in the Byzantine era. Lettuce was consumed throughout the Arab world and was used medicinally with vinegar for the stomach in the Byzantine Empire of the 11th century.

Cos lettuce traveled to Italy in Roman times where it was consumed raw as an appetizer — still a culinary practice today — or cooked and served with oil and vinegar. It arrived in France by the 15th century where it was christened Avignon lettuce in the 1530s and later became known as Roman (hence Romaine) lettuce. By the late 16th century loose-leaf and heading types were known.

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