As you know, our recent cold snap, here in Kentucky, didn’t bode well for local lettuce crops. Hearing that our own little CSA crop also suffered got me to wondering. Like a lot of farming topics, I really don’t know that much about lettuce. Where did originate? Who decided it was edible? And Why can it be so persnickety to grow? A little research this week had me pleasantly surprised.
Not only are there many varieties within each type of lettuce, such as Leaf, Romaine, Iceberg, Crispheads, Butterheads, Summer Crisps, Red & Green, among others, they are also rich in vitamins such as Vitamin K, Vitamin A, Folate, and Iron.
Being a student of anthropology, I was surprised to learn that, although its origins are unknown, the earliest known cultivation of lettuce occurred by the Egyptians, as far back as 2680B.C. The variety they grew was large, somewhere around 30 inches tall, and was cultivated mainly for its seeds, which they pressed for their oil. Paintings illustrating lettuce cultivation can be seen in temples, and scrolls, and carved stone panels from the period. Contact through trade with the Greeks and Romans resulted in shorter, more compact regional lettuce varieties which were later cultivated throughout Europe.
Lettuce, in general, is a hardy annual that is related to the daisy family, relatively easy to grow, and likes colder climates. Michael confirmed for me this week that under ideal conditions, lettuce would be extremely easy to grow. But with unpredictable weather conditions like we have here in southern Kentucky, it makes cultivation a lot more difficult. In the fall and spring, growth rates are much higher with increased sunlight. But too much will cause the plants to grow too quickly and bolt (set seeds), which causes the plants to become bitter. Lettuce also requires lots of water because the plants have a shallow root system. However, if moisture levels are not closely monitored, and the greenhouses aren’t ventilated properly, the plants can become susceptible to fungal attacks such as mold. Another of the biggest challenges in the cultivation of lettuce in the field, is that it attracts many varieties of insects, mammals (such as deer, rabbits, and groundhogs), and is also susceptible to viral diseases, and contamination through unhealthy water supplies. Lastly, aphids, every gardener and farmer’s well-known companion, is an ever-present problem. Michael says, “if you have one, you have a thousand!” Sound like lettuce is the crop you love to hate.
Medicinally, lettuce has many benefits, which vary significantly by culture. The Egyptians and Romans believed that ingesting the leaves and oil of lettuce benefitted prowess, love, and healthy child bearing. However, the Greeks were afraid of ingesting lettuce in any form, believing like the later Victorians, that the plant caused infertility and sterility. This was due to the mild levels of sleep wort which occur naturally in some varieties. The Greeks served it at funerals, believing that it aided in dampening emotions during the time of mourning. Lettuce greens are also a staple of several Jewish holidays, including Passover and Seder.
But it was during the settlement of the early American colonies that lettuce varieties were prized for their medicinal properties. Folk practitioners believed lettuce could aide with treating pain, rheumatism, tension, nervosa, coughs, insanity, and could even prevent or lessen the effects of smallpox. Wild lettuce varieties are well-known today for their medicinal properties, especially for pain relief, and are cultivated by many gardeners who use it in teas and tinctures for headaches or muscle pain relief.
These discoveries once again reinforced my admiration for the patience and diligence of farmers. Like many aspects of farming, Lettuce is hard. Bet you never at your salad the same way again!
Peace & Blessins’

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