The shining star of spring salads, a member of the BLT triumvirate, lettuce is one of the most widely grown and enjoyed vegetables around the world. But did you know this humble vegetable has a long history, diverse varieties, and preparations that extend far beyond the salad bowl? Whether you prefer buttery or spicy flavors, there's a lettuce for you!
Lettuce is actually a member of the daisy family, and its Latin name is Lactuca sativa, from the Latin word lac meaning "milk" referring to the plant's milky juice. The common lettuce we know and love is doubtless derived from wild lettuce–found as far back as 4500 BC–and it has been cultivated for many years across numerous countries. An important food crop in ancient Egypt, it was considered sacred to the Egyptian god Min. It also grew in importance among Persian, Chinese and Roman cultures. It is believed that Columbus may have brought lettuce to the Americas, and varieties can be found throughout North and South America.
Lettuce has six commonly accepted cultivars including Butterhead (Boston, Bibb, Buttercrunch), Chinese lettuce, Crisphead (Iceberg), Looseleaf, Romaine and Summer Crisp. Flavor and texture can vary extensively from buttery to spicy, delicate to sturdy. Lettuce prefers light, sandy, humus-rich soil that holds moisture well. It grows best in cool weather (early spring, late summer) and may bolt and turn bitter under too hot or dry conditions. Lettuce tends to be high in vitamins A and C as well as folate, with darker varieties higher in vitamins.
While we're most accustomed to lettuce in salads and sandwiches, Chinese cuisine often uses lettuce in stews and soups. Feel free to get creative! You can even slice a head of romaine in half, brush with oil, and grill it for a unique flavor to your salads. Here are a few more ideas for enjoying lettuce this spring:
- article by Kimberly Coburn & photos by market volunteers