Yarb Tales - "Salad Greens"
February 1, 2016

The Heritage Herb Garden at the Ozark Folk Center graces the park with visual colors and textures, sweet and pungent aromas, and helps us to interpret the history of the human use of plants.

Herbs that we now call “salad greens” come from wild plants that include chicory and endive (Cichorium spp.), lettuce (Lactuca spp.) and sow thistles (Sonchus oleraceus). Historical accounts of these plants begin in the near east with images inscribed on Egyptian tombstones. Endive, chicory, lettuce and sow-thistles have the same habit of growth and so were often confused in common names, calling one for another. The plants are from the Compositae family. They are biennial, producing a rosette of leaves the first year, then ‘bolting” by sending up a tall stalk with few leaves, topped with flowers that produce winged seed in the second year.

They all contain a bitter, latex-like sap that folks used as a sedative. First written records list these plants as medicinal, being used in tea to induce sleep, to calm fits of coughing and as a pain reliever. The leaves were mashed and applied as poultices to promote breast milk production. The juice of the plants was squeezed out and applied to heal warts and pimples. How did we come to regard these bitter, medicinal herbs as food?

Early Greeks and Romans began cultivating the wild plants for food and medicine before the birth of Christ. Romans served salad at the end of the meal to calm the appetite and to relax. As cultivation continued, the extreme bitterness of the wild species was bred out. Agricultural varieties of lettuce were sent to the New World in the late 1400s and were a mainstay in early American gardens.

Today we can choose from a dazzling array of salad greens. This column will address the most popular salad ingredient, lettuce. It is classified according to its leaf shape and growth habit.

Butterhead, which is also known as Boston and bibb lettuce, has soft, rounded leaves that overlap to form a head. The leaves inside the head are blanched because they are hidden from the sun.

Crisphead, to which iceberg and romaine lettuce belongs, have crunchy leaves that overlap tightly to form heads or may have long leaves that do not form heads. The key word is “crisp”.

Loose-leaved or simply “leaf lettuces” have a cut-and-come-again growth quality. The leaves form loose rosettes instead of tight heads and are very easy to grow. The outer leaves can be picked for salad without taking the entire plant. Leaf shapes in this group range from smooth and entire to frilly, finely cut, and oakleaf forms. Varieties include ‘Black Seeded Simpson’, ‘Waldmann’s Dark Green’ (seen most often in produce markets), red leaf, and green oakleaf. Every shade of red and green can be grown for the salad bowl from this group.

To grow lettuce successfully, start planting in the greenhouse or cold frame now and directly in the garden as soon as the ground thaws. Seed will germinate at 40ºF. The plants will grow best when temperatures are between 60º and 65ºF. Because our cool spring temperatures last for only a short while, choose varieties that can be started and mature very early and that resist bolting when hot weather starts. Sow every three weeks to lengthen the harvest.