Claire’s 18th Century Garden: Cimarron Lettuce

March 25, 2014 in 18th Century Garden, How Does Your Garden Grow?, Uncategorized by M C

dkgreenbrownLettuce Rejoice!

Cimmaron Lettuce seed from Sustainable SeedsLettuce is one of the oldest known vegetables, and, surprisingly, is a member of the daisy and thistle family… how’s that for a Scottish connection?  The Ancient Greeks believed lettuce induced sleep, so served it at the end of a meal until Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD) started serving it at the beginning of his banquets to torture his guests… who had to stay awake in his presence.  So, as Claire would say of hedgehogs making love.. now you know how long that’s been around.  Lettuce made it from the end of the meal to the beginning almost in the year one.

Lettuce was so popular with the Romans Emperor Caesar Augustus built a statue praising lettuce for curing him of an illness, and it became traditional for Romans (who evidently did not buy the soporific theory) to begin their banquets with a salad to enhance appetite and aide in digestion.

By 1492, when Christopher Columbus is sailing the ocean blue, lettuce greens in a wide variety are eaten throughout Europe, and Columbus brings the seed along with him, introducing it to the new world.  And if he wanted lettuce?  He’d have had to grow it himself. Lettuce is one of the few vegetables that can’t be preserved – you can’t freeze it, can it, dry it or pickle it without it turning into mush.  Refrigeration will keep lettuce, especially romaine and iceberg varieties, fresh long enough to ship to the grocery, but the desirable buttercrunches and leaf lettuces quickly start browning and wilting. Enterprising growers are packaging heads of buttercrunch and leaf lettuce, complete with roots, in plastic boxes in an effort to maintain a crisp head.

Claire would have tried to extend the season by planting early and covering to protect the plants from frost, but today you can find directions for growing lettuce in plastic sandwich bags on your windowsill all winter.  It’s on my bucket list of gardening tricks to try.

Thomas Jefferson likely grew Cimarron Lettuce, which has been around since 1700, in his garden, along with other romaine varieties.  It’s a crisp and tender variety, full of flavor, with flat green specled to burgundy leaves that mature at 10-12″ long.  And Cimarron is slow to bolt, which means the harvest can be extended into the warm months.

To plant your lettuce mark rows 12″ apart, or plant a single row in a window box. Sprinkle thinly on the soil surface, stir the soil gently, then pat down and water gently.  Thin down to final spacing of 8″ apart once plants are established, making a nice salad out of the thinnings.  For best results, plant in spring or fall. If you are growing lettuce in the heat, plant them where they will get afternoon shade.  Harvest outside leaves for a continual harvest.  Or cut the entire head for a nice presentation and for longer harvest, stagger plantings every 2-3 weeks.

More informaiton on Claire’s 18th Century garden vegetables

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