Plant Personality: Heirloom Lettuce

by Ken Greene


Alison, one of our awesome interns, has been researching our varieties a bit. Here's some of what she learned about lettuce:

The prototypical salad base, lettuce started out as a weed growing along the Mediterranean. The mild green enjoyed great popularity with ancient Greeks and Romans, who praised its creamy extracts (lettuce’s proper name, Lactuca sativa, is derived from the Latin word for milk, lac—you may have noticed the milky sap produced when stems are broken.) This wasn’t isolated popularity, as even Egyptian tomb paintings have been dedicated to the plant. United States lettuce cultivation began once Christopher Columbus introduced it to the new world. It’s been enjoying a rightful place in salad bowls ever since.

Doug weeding a bed of lettuce. Doug weeding a bed of lettuce.

There are four types of lettuce: Butterhead lettuces have loose heads with mild, buttery leaves (Boston and Bibb lettuces fit in this category). Crisphead (which includes Iceberg) is characterized by dense heads of tightly packed leaves (and the lowest nutritional value of all the lettuces). Looseleaf lettuces have leaves joined at a base, without forming a head (pretty much any variety with “leaf” in the name will probably be this type, including the oak leaf types.) Romaine or Cos lettuces are loaf-shaped with dark outer leaves and more pale, crunchy hearts.

New York has a notable number of delicious heirloom lettuces—let’s talk about some!

Black Seeded Simpson lettuce has been around in New York since 1880. It’s a looseleaf lettuce with bright yellow-green, crinkly leaves that are tender and sweet. Prizehead lettuce forms a loose head that is green toward the base and reddish-pink toward the edges, with leaves that are also tender and sweet. Ithaca lettuce was developed at Cornell University in Ithaca (land of gorges—hence the name); crisp, almost spiky lettuce leaves form tight heads.


120Lettuce has a well-deserved reputation for being one of the easiest home garden staples. It can be sown at any time throughout the season and harvested at any stage--from the baby leaf stage about 3-4 weeks after germination to full head size. (In Asia, some lettuces are even harvested at the bolting stage; the thick stem is cooked and eaten.) Usually a small head (about 60-80 days old) makes the best eating, but during the heat of summer, harvest even younger to ensure sweet leaves--once lettuce plants start to bolt, they become bitter.

Lettuce must be sown at intervals of approximately 2-3 weeks in order to have fresh high-quality lettuce on the table all season long. Keep sowing until around Labor Day. Sowings made in September or later will often overwinter and provide fresh, delicious leaves beginning in April--long before spring-sown lettuce is ready. It prefers medium fertility soil but is quite adaptable. Our most common challenge in growing lettuce is that it can be attractive to slugs--especially in wet years when they venture far into garden beds. Locate your lettuce away from lawn edges to help protect it.


A man goes to the doctor with a piece of lettuce hanging out of his ear.
"That looks nasty," says the doctor.
"This?" replies the man. "This is just the tip of the iceberg!"

Got a lettuce joke, historic tid-bit, growing tip or lettuce pic of your own? Lettuce know!