The Lettuce and the Mesclun – A Little History and Some Growing Instructions
Lettuce appears to have been domesticated from a weedy species of wild lettuce that produced lettuce leaves on the top of a tall stem. Evidence which supports this theory comes from Egyptian tomb paintings dating back 4500 years which show bundles of stem lettuce being transported. The first written accounts describing lettuce are from Herodotus, who wrote that lettuce appeared on the royal tables in Persia in 550 BC. The Greeks, including Hippocrates, ascribed medicinal properties to lettuce, and the Romans wrote extensively about it including Pliny who described nine varieties grown in Roman agriculture. It was probably the Romans who introduced lettuce into northern and western Europe.
The Romans popularized a tall cylindrical form of head lettuce which they found growing on the Greek island of Cos. This particular form of lettuce became so popular in Rome that it took the name, “romaine” named after the Eternal City. Romaine lettuce is still often referred to as “cos lettuce” in honor of its original birthplace, the Greek island of Cos.
Lettuce was among the first vegetables brought from Europe to the New World. In 1494, its presence on Isabela Island is mentioned in the writings of Peter Martyr. This suggests that Columbus may have brought the vegetable on his second voyage. In the early years of the United States, an assortment of lettuces were grown. In the 1848, 11 different lettuce types are offered.
It was written that, “The Lettuce is a hardy annual, introduced and cultivated in England since 1562, but from what country is unknown. The use of Lettuce as a cooling and agreeable salad, is well known; it is also a useful ingredient in soups. It contains, like the other species of this genus, a quantity of opium juice, of a milky nature, from which of late years, medicine has been prepared under the title of Lactucarium, and which can be administered with effect in cases where opium is inadmissable…”
Mesclun is a blend of choice salad greens which originated in the south of France. It consists of a mixture of very young leaves and shoots of wild and cultivated plants. The mixture usually includes several varieties of leaf lettuce especially oakleaf, leafy cutting chicory, dandelion, arugula, corn salad, radicchio, chervil, sorrel, curly endive and purslane.
There are basically 3 types of lettuce. Head lettuce includes the Crisphead or cabbage type and the Butterhead, the floppy-headed type also known as Bibb or Boston. The leaf lettuce also known as cutting lettuce is a non-heading type which forms rosettes of curled or fringed leaves. Romaine or cos lettuce forms tall cylindrical heads of elongated oval leaves.
Most lettuce and mesclun requires cool weather and fertile, well-drained garden soil. Hot weather causes most lettuce to immediately produce a seed spike known as bolting. When lettuce bolts its leaves take on a bitter, unpleasant taste. Lettuce and mesclun are best direct seeded in succession plantings, starting 2-3 weeks before the last frost date. Seeds should be planted ½ inch deep in rows 12-18 inches apart and thinned to 8-12 inches apart.
All types of lettuce and mesclun can be grown in containers. Lettuce and mesclun grown in containers can be started at least 2 weeks earlier than garden grown lettuce, but container grown lettuce and mesclun will also start to bolt sooner and so must be watched closely for signs of bolting. Lettuce and mesclun also make excellent fall crops. Seeds should be planted 8-10 weeks before the first frost date. Leaf lettuce and mesclun can begin to be harvested when the leaves are approximately 3 inches long. Head lettuces should be harvested before the central crown begins to elongate and bolt.