The 10 best lettuces for the healthiest, 365-day salad supply.
Iread in a nutrition text once that lettuce had insignificant nutrients or health benefits. I was surprised, disappointed, puzzled. Why did I feel so healthy after eating a fresh salad?
When I was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma in 2005, I researched everything I could do to stay healthy and live longer. Near the top of the list was a diet high in organically-grown, raw greens. Surprise!
I decided right then to eat more homegrown raw greens, and lettuce salads were at the top of the list. My son was 10 at the time and you will not be surprised to hear he treated the change in diet with a marked lack of enthusiasm. Eventually we gave up serving him lettuce and settled for chopped raw carrots and apples (which he still loves to eat today).
But my husband and I stuck to the plan. For the past 11 years we have eaten salads almost daily for most of the year. I expected to feel a little healthier and certainly virtuous, but what I didn’t expect was to love these crunchy side dishes so much. Now, if a meal does not include a salad, I feel deprived.
For the past three years our salad greens have come solely from our own garden. Winter nights are pleasantly occupied poring over seed catalogues, and I feel delighted, and sometimes dazed, by the great diversity in shapes, colours and textures, from smooth to frilled, notched and scalloped, from red to golden-green, magenta and even teal.
The loose-leaf varieties offer the greatest diversity. The butterheads are somewhere in between the loose-leaf and the crisphead varieties I grew up on, with a slightly thicker leaf and a soft, buttery texture. The Mediterranean-based cos or romaine lettuces are different again in taste, texture and shape, with distinctive, crisp, upright, elongated heads.
It would seem we’ve come a long way from the narrow range available when I was in charge of the family vegetable garden in the 1960s and 70s, but in truth we are going backwards. As with other vegetables, many of the ‘new’ colourful varieties in seed catalogues are heirlooms, re-discovered from the past when salads were much more diverse. The Romans conferred these plants with the generic name ‘lactuca’ meaning ‘milky juice’ after the bitter, milky latex with narcotic properties which is expressed when the stem is cut.
All lettuces contain this narcotic juice but wild lettuce ( L. virosa) has the most. This biennial herb grows to almost 2m in height and is sometimes called ‘poor man’s opium’. It has been used as an opium adulterant, although it is not addictive like opium and doesn’t upset the digestive system. Modern lettuces contain less of it, although it is still there.
For thousands of years, lettuce was cultivated for medicinal properties contained in the latex, including calming, sedating, and pain relieving effects. The Emperor Augustus believed his recovery from illness was due to lactuca and built an altar and statue in its honour. Collectors would cut the heads of wild lettuce and scrape the juice into china vessels. The dried juice, when hardened, turns brown and is known as lactucarium.
Lettuce was prescribed for inducing sleep, as nasal drops, a mild sedative, and to relieve anxiety, as well as for whooping cough, asthma, urinary tract problems, cough, poor circulation, joint pain, insomnia and excitability in children.
These effects are not well researched, but experimental models and mice have indicated some sleep-inducing and anxiety-reducing effects, and cholesterollowering and anti-microbial effects with a number of yeasts, including candida.
Lettuce even had sexual symbolism. If the flowering stalk is cut off, the latex spurts out under pressure, which may be why the Egyptians believed eating lettuce was thought to increase sexual potency and prowess.
The Greeks, on the other hand, connected it with male impotency. Even in the 19th century British women believed it would cause infertility and sterility.