My summer is significantly less academic than the previous semesters, which has been a nice change. I’m working for my parents on my childhood farm; I grew up working on this farm, which grows organically raised vegetables, herbs, raspberries, and chickens on the model of community supported agriculture. Lots of work, which for me includes writing a vegetable spotlight for our Weekly Note. Here’s a taste of this new research!
“Lettuce (Lactuca sativa) is part of the aster/sunflower family. Within L. sativa, there are many groups of varieties, distinguishing Romaines from oil-seed lettuces, for example. Ancient Egyptians cultivated lettuce as early as 2680 BC, who turned the green from a plant whose seeds were pressed for oil into a plant grown for its leaves. From Egypt, Greeks and Romans brought lettuce into their agriculture; the Roman emperor Domitian began the practice of eating salad before a meal. Romans and Egyptians used lettuce to increase fertility, but the Greeks viewed lettuce as causing sterility. Lettuce’s wild cousins have a narcotic effect, whence came the Anglo-Saxon name “sleepwort.” By 50 AD lettuce was recorded as having varieties. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, Europeans, particularly in the Netherlands, developed more varieties, many of which still exist.
Where once lettuce was primarily grown in the US and Europe for local consumption, lettuce consumption spread worldwide by the late twentieth century. Over half of the world’s production of lettuce is in China, delivered internationally since the 1950s by the use of vacuum–packing technologies. In 2011, the worldwide production of lettuce was 23,217,623 metric tons. China produces 58%. In comparison, of the lettuce production on this farm, the members are receiving 100%! Most lettuce is grown for its leaves, though some varieties are also used in tobacco-free cigarettes and one Chinese variety is grown for its asparagus-like stems.
- Romaine is, if not the exact variety, very closely related to the variety developed by ancient Egyptians. Because it has been grown in the papal gardens in Rome for a long time, the French named it “Romaine,” but it carries another name, “cos,” as it was also grown on the Greek island Kos. Leaves of Romaine can be used instead of eating utensils and is a source of folate and vitamins K, C, and A.
- Red Sails, an heirloom variety, is a five hundred year old variety. As its leaves sport darker reds and greens, Red Sails is higher in flavonols than lighter-leafed varieties. Of the red-leafed lettuces, Red Sails is the slowest to grow a seed stalk, or bolt.
- Buttercrunch may have been developed in India or Central Asia, challenging the Egyptians’ hegemony in domesticating lettuce. In the last two hundred years, northern Europeans preferred this variety.
- Iceberg was developed in the 1940s, a shippable variety predating modern shipping technology. Iceberg-like varieties are extremely sensitive to heat, so they can be grown in the colder temperatures of late fall and very early spring.
- Black-seeded Simpson has one of the shortest maturity rates in lettuces, which is why they are often the first out of gardeners’ gardens!”