Let­tuce 365

The 10 best let­tuces for the health­i­est, 365-day salad sup­ply.

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Country Smile -

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.

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