Plant of the Week
Latin: Lactuca sativa
Of the many vegetables suitable for the home garden, leaf lettuce is one of the best. And, as we become more health conscious, it is an ideal choice for the table.
Leaf lettuce, depending on the growth form and leaf type, is one of several botanical varieties of Lactuca sativa, a member of the daisy family. It’s a fast growing annual that produces its broad, succulent leaves in a rosette around a short stem in early spring. As long days arrive in late spring, bolting occurs and the stem elongates with the leaves pushed upward. The yellow or white daisy flowers are produced in a terminal cluster.
The Romans called this vegetable “Lactuca” because of the milky white sap produced when the stems are cut. Early in the season, lettuce produces little latex, but as it matures, latex production increases, and the leaves become bitter.
Lettuce has been long cultivated, being pictured in Egyptian tombs as far back as 3000 BC. It probably originated in the southern Mediterranean region. Columbus brought it to the New World, growing it as a fast greens crop on his second trip in 1493. Lettuce seeds were amongst the vegetables the Pilgrims brought with them when they first landed at Plymouth Rock.
Lettuce comes in a bewildering array of shapes and sizes. Over 200 kinds are grown today, with these divided into five groups. Of these, leaf lettuce is the fastest and easiest to grow. The light green, curly leafed forms such as Grand Rapids, Black Seeded Simpson and Salad Bowl can be harvested in about 45 days. Ruby or Red Sails are similar loose-leaf forms but with maroon foliage.
Other types of leaf lettuces produce heads to a lesser or greater extent. Bibb lettuce, one of the butterhead types, is a small rosette of deep green leaves that matures in about 60 days. The elongated heads of romaine lettuce (also called Cos lettuce) is harder to grow in the warm weather of the South. The crisphead lettuce selections - which include the familiar Iceberg lettuce from the grocery store - are almost impossible to grow in our climate.
Salads have long been a part of our diet. The tradition of beginning a meal with a salad dates back to at least Roman times. They believed that salads enhanced the appetite and relaxed the digestive tract so they could consume more food during their feasts. In 17th century England, Gerard tells us that salads were eaten before meat, but a few mavericks ate them last because it relaxed them.
Gerard also tells us that lettuce “maketh plenty of milke in nurses.” This reference is an application of what is known as the “doctrine of signature” - a Middle Ages belief that God sent signals to mankind about the best uses for plants. In this case, a plant that produced milk must obviously be good for lactating mothers.
Lettuce is among the easiest vegetables to grow. Seed can be sown in place in any good garden soil. Seeding should be done in the first days of March and at about two week intervals through mid April. Scatter seed thinly in a row and lightly cover. Ten feet of row can yield up to 10 pounds of lettuce, which will keep a family in salad until the next planting matures.
If you want to cut the lettuce as a rosette, thin the seedlings to about 5 inches apart. Some forego thinning and clip leaves from the row of greenery as soon as they reach four to six inches tall. Though best in full sun, leaf lettuce will grow in more shady locations than most vegetables. Keep it watered to encourage growth and reduce bitterness.
By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - March 24, 2006
The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.