Most people take lettuce for granted, considering it only as a filler in a salad full of better items. The obligatory green leaf on a hamburger (supposedly making the hamburger healthier since salad is involved) or the underlayment of a few leaves that holds a scoop of chicken salad banishes this ancient leaf to decorative status, when it was once highly regarded and even associated with the gods at one point in history.
Lettuce in ancient history
Lettuce probably originated in Egypt and was originally a bitter, leafy herb that the Egyptians used as a source of oil, which they pressed from the seeds. They also ate the leaves and the plant was associated with their god Min, who was their god of fertility. They they thought lettuce was an aid for stamina and had the same properties as Viagra®. There's no scientific evidence that this is true. However the ancients considered lettuce a sexual aid for hundreds of years. The Romans started the custom of eating a lettuce salad before a meal to boost sexual prowess and to make it even more effective, some even ate lettuce at the end of a meal as well. They also felt that it aided digestion. The Romans also gave is the botanical name still in use today. Lactuca savitus describes the plant perfectly. Lac is the Latin descriptor for milk and gives a nod to the milky sap that the mature leaves bleed. Sativus is the Latin term for cultivated or useful plants and that was quite correct even then. Pliny the Elder described many different cultivars and also noted that it was quite tasty served in hot oil and vinegar. Here in the South, we still do this with our early spring lettuce and a salad consisting of hot bacon grease (of course, because it is the South) vinegar and early green onions graces the dinner tables of countless Southern homes as soon as the leaves can be harvested. The Romans were responsible for spreading lettuce all across Europe and Columbus carried lettuce seeds with him to the New World and accounts of it growing in the various outpost's gardens were recorded as early as 1494. It made its way to China through Middle Eastern countries of Persia and Turkey where it was often cooked and eaten like spinach.
Lettuce in modern times
Lettuce was probably the first non-root vegetable to be commonly available twelve months out of the year. Before this, people depended on root vegetables such as potatoes, onions and carrots for their fresh food. When it was discovered how to keep iceberg lettuce fresh and crisp across the continent by maintaining a 32 degree environment, the quick-growing vegetable was soon shipped to all parts of the country. By the early 1950's, even the smallest country grocery store could offer fresh lettuce to its neighborhood customers. My uncle and aunt owned such a store and the fresh vegetable section in the early 1960's consisted of lettuce, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, celery and onions. Only during the summer were locally-grown tomatoes and bell peppers offered. However, this was a very rural community and it was unusual if a house did not have a kitchen garden out back with the necessities of corn, cucumbers, beans, squash, okra and field peas along with tomatoes and peppers. We grew our own leaf lettuce in the spring along with radishes and little green onions.
Lettuce is so easy to grow that even gardeners with the brownest thumbs can be successful. It is even quite content growing in containers. All it asks is a sunny spot out of the heat of summer, ample moisture in well-drained soil. It tolerates cool weather well and is even grown all winter in cold frames and unheated greenhouses. Prepare the ground with the soil turned at least six inches deep and well-rotted compost worked in. Sow when the soil reaches about 40 degrees Fahrenheit and lightly cover with soil. It should germinate between seven and ten days and grows best when the daytime temperatures average between 60 and 70 degrees. If growing lettuce that makes a head, thin to about eight to ten inches apart. Leaf lettuce between three and four inches apart. You can add your thinned plants to your salads as baby lettuce, so nothing goes to waste. Sow about a week's worth of lettuce at a time (this is called succession planting) and then another week's worth between seven and ten days later. Lettuce grows quickly and some of the leaf types are ready in as little as thirty days. The heading types generally take about twice as long, however, that's not much time in the vegetable world. You can even sow lettuce in the fall about four to six weeks before the first frost. In warmer climates, you may have to give the seedlings a little afternoon shade until the temperatures cool and the leaf types are probably the best choices, however there are so many choices of color, shapes and tastes, your salads won't be boring. Keep the lettuce well watered, however do not let the soil sit wet and boggy. Lettuce tends to rot if the roots stay flooded. It is almost time here in western Kentucky to start our spring lettuce and probably in many parts of the country as well. Folks up north will have to wait a bit longer unless they have a greenhouse or cold frame, however time passes quickly and it will be springtime before we know it.