Crisphead or iceberg lettuces
These grow slowly to form tight hearts, with the leaves varying from bright green on the outside to pale green within the heart away from light. They are still the main varieties grown for market because they pack, travel and store so well. Icebergs form the best heads in spring and autumn but tend to bolt prematurely in hot summer conditions. There are boltresistant varieties, although they can be prone to tip burn in the heat of summer.
The home gardener has access to a diverse and exciting array in the looseleaf lettuces. These feature soft, textured leaves, rosettes rather than hearts, and a diverse range of colours, from buttery yellow to two tone reds and greens, tawny brown and magenta. The leaves may be deeply notched, flat, curled, crinkly, wavy or frilled and the effect can be very ornamental.
Loose-leaf lettuces are easy and fast to grow, maturing in about 50 days, and can be picked a leaf at a time. Early picking can start from 30 days at baby leaf stage, cutting at 8-12cm for regrowth.
Loose-leaf lettuces are tender and delicate in flavour. They are reasonably hardy but hold better in summer as young greens than as mature plants. These are the mainstay of our home supply and we love them.
Butterhead (Boston or Bibb) lettuces
Butterhead lettuces form heads, but they are much looser than crisphead, with a crumpled head, soft texture and a very delicate flavour. While some, like Buttercrunch, hold well in hot weather, they tend to become bitter. They typically grow well in shorter day length and are better for spring and autumn planting, and for greenhouse growing in winter. They wilt quickly after picking and are rarely available in shops. Most are green.
Cos or romaine lettuces
These are of Mediterranean origin, ‘romaine’ being a derivation of Roman, and ‘cos’ coming from Kos, a Greek Island. The romaine lettuces are more upright, forming tight, elongated hearts. These combine the crisp juiciness of head lettuces with the nutritional value of leaf lettuce. They are popular with chefs for caesar salads, with their long, thick, crisp leaves and distinctive flavour.
The larger forms are slower growing. Romaines are good at withstanding hot, dry conditions. Green varieties are better for summer growing than red romaines, which tend to bolt.
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