In the modern world of leafy greens, lettuce is an international superstar.
Regardless of the fare, chances are for every multi-course meal lettuce plays at least a small part. Like many of the fruits, vegetables and other plant-derived foods we eat today, the various forms of lettuce that are used the world over are products of cultivation by generations of hard-working farmers and scientists.
In fact, lettuce has been the talk of the table for perhaps more than 4,000 years. It is believed that the first culture to begin growing lettuce in reckless abandon was the ancient Egyptians. Similar to the way ancient peoples in southern Mexico transformed small grasses into what we now know as corn, the early forms of modern lettuce were tall, hardy plants filled with an abundance of white latex in their leaves.
These plants appear to have been rather distasteful at the time, and their foliage was generally overlooked as a food. Instead, early lettuces were grown in order to harvest their seeds to make oils. Over time, adventurous growers began to develop a taste for the bitter leaves, and they began to cultivate plants with larger, tastier greenery.
These first growths were probably a bit spicy, with a form similar to the romaine lettuce we know of today. Early lettuces were very important to the ancient Egyptians, becoming a reliable and tasty food source.
Due to its vigorous nature and tendency to stand straight up in tight bundles, it was also viewed as a potent aphrodisiac at the time. Even as the Romans grew and developed new types of lettuces thousands of years later, many amorous nights were sealed with the juicy crunch of lettuce-lust.
Today the world produces over 25 million tons of various lettuces each year. Although the vast majority of these plants have been bred to such a degree that their long-term survival in the wild is practically impossible, it can be surprisingly easy to get a close look at plants very similar to the original versions that were first domesticated in Egypt. In fact, there are a variety of wild lettuces native to the area.
The two most common in these parts are Canadian lettuce and biannual lettuce, both of which can grow to mammoth heights over 6 feet tall. These plants still retain the dense latex that was largely bred out of salad lettuces, and so their foliage is mostly inedible unless picked when young and cooked. It is considered a weed in many landscapes due to its size and ability to easily re-seed into an area, however, its benefits to wildlife warrant a second thought.
The large, abundant foliage feeds a wide variety of mammals and other grazers, and birds eat the seeds as well. I have even seen hummingbirds visit the bunches of small flowers on wild lettuce throughout mid to late summer.
When allowed to grow in the garden, wild lettuces can give surrounding areas a prehistoric pop with their interesting height and foliage types. Gazing upon their sentinel towers also engenders a feeling of respect for the countless green-thumbed geniuses who were able to transform similar plants into the leaves that fill our salad bowls today.
If possible, I encourage you to let some of these amazing plants grow in the back and fringes of your gardens. Their tenacity ensures that new volunteers will almost always find their way into your spaces each year, however, if you ever find yourself in need, cutting the seed head off of a plant and burying it under a few inches of soil will ensure you have a healthy crop the following season.
Brannen Basham and his wife, Jill Jacobs, operate Spriggly’s Beescaping, a business dedicated to the preservation of pollinators. He can be reached at email@example.com.