Iceberg lettuce, butterhead lettuce, and romaine lettuce are all head lettuce. All three have heirloom varieties, and all of these varieties all fall under the category heirloom head lettuces.
Lettuce is a part of the daisy family. It’s an annual plant and by far one of the easiest to grow on your own. Europe and North America originally dominated the market for lettuce, but by the late 20th century the consumption of lettuce had spread throughout the world.
Species: L. Sativa
Binomial name: Lactuca sativa
- The name of the butterhead heirloom Bunte Forellenschluss from Austria, a lettuce with light green leaves splashed with maroon, has an interesting meaning: according to Jack Staub, in the book Alluring Lettuces: And Other Seductive Vegetables for Your Garden, the name means “speckled like a trout.”
- The romaine lettuce heirloom Parris Island, dark green on the outside, pale green on the inside, was named after a small island off the eastern seaboard in South Carolina.
- The heirloom head lettuce Tennis Ball was grown during the time of Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States.
According to Angela England, in the book Backyard Farming on an Acre, “most gardeners generally consider heirloom varieties as 50 to 100 years old. The other key factor of heirloom plants is that they are open-pollinated. This means the seed breeds true.”
If you are looking to buy heirloom head lettuces to grow (for personal consumption or for commercial production), here are some heirloom head lettuces to consider:
Butterhead lettuce heirloom
- Kagraner Sommer
- Yugoslavian Red Butter Lettuce
- Three Heart
- Tennis Ball
- Sanguine Ameliore
- Merveille De Quatre Saisons
- Gulley’s Favorite
- Grandpa Admire’s Lettuce
- Grandma Hadley’s
- Ella Kropf
- Bunte Forellenschluss
- Aunt Mae’s
- Red Iceberg
- Webb’s Wonderful
Romaine lettuce heirloom
- Crisp Mint
- Red Romaine
- Winter Density
- Parris Island
When buying lettuce, remember these tips.
- Check the condition and quality of the leaves. Slimy or soft leaves are indications that the lettuce is not in great condition, and possibly starting to rot or go bad. Do not buy lettuce with slimy or soft leaves.
- The smell is also a good indicator of the quality of the lettuce. Smell it. A fresh lettuce will have a fresh or neutral smell. If there is a bad smell, do not buy this lettuce.
If you want to buy seeds for heirloom head lettuce, you can buy from specialty stores, nurseries, and seed catalogues. You can visit the store or you can order online.
Production & Farming in Texas
In Texas, it is common to find gardeners and growers growing head lettuces like butterhead, Bibb, and romaine. Loose leaf lettuces are also commonly grown in Texas. A good time to start planting in Texas is around October when the temperature is normally under 75 degrees F or 25 degrees C. You can still sow until March.
Lettuce is a cool weather plant. Lettuce growing in a very warm or hot temperature will bolt or go to seed. Lettuce likes the the sun, but during the summer, it is best to provide partial shade for lettuce to mitigate any potential ill-effects of the heat. As an annual plant, expect to replant lettuces every year. When it comes to watering, lettuces prefer light but frequent watering.
Days to maturity ranges from as fast as 40 days to as long as 80 days, depending on the variety.
If you are growing heirloom head lettuce, make sure you know how long a specific heirloom takes to mature.
- Aunt Mae’s, a pre-1937 heirloom, takes 50 to 60 days
- Baquieu, also called Golden Tennis Ball, takes 55 days
- Bibb takes 55 to 60 days
- Bunte Forellenschluss takes 60 days
- Capitan takes 62 days
- Crisp Mint takes 60 to 65 days
- Ella Kropf takes 68 days
- Forellenschluss takes 70 to 75 days
- Grandma Hadley’s Lettuce takes 40 to 55 days
- Grandpa Admire’s Lettuce takes 60 days
- Gulley’s Favorite takes 60 days
- Merveille De Quatre Saisons, a centuries-old French heirloom Bibb lettuce, takes 58 days
- Red Iceberg takes 70 to 80 days
- Red Romaine takes 30 to 60 days
- Sanguine Ameliore (Strawberry Cabbage) takes 60 days
- Summertime takes 70 days
- Tennis Ball takes 50 days
- Three Heart takes 40 to 50 days
- Webb’s Wonderful takes 65 to 70 days
- Winter Density takes takes 54 days
- Yugoslavian Red Butter Lettuce takes 55 days
Consider the best conditions for growing. For Bibb, for example, know that like Kagraner Sommer, this is slightly more tolerant of heat and is best planted early or late in the spring away from intense summer sun. Parris Island can be grown in fall, winter, and spring. Baquieu, which produces small heads with golden yellow leaves, is best for spring or fall garden. If you want a lettuce that is both delicious and looks good on the garden as well, try Merveille De Quatre Saisons, beloved by growers and farmers because of its ornamental qualities, with its big head of beautiful ruby-red leaves, while Red Iceberg is described as a “beautiful plant” with its “light green head with pink accents, nestled in a bed of deep burgundy outer leaves” according to an online seed vendor.
Pesticides, Additives, and Chemicals
One of the issues when it comes to commercially-grown lettuce is the amount of pesticides found in this green, leafy vegetable. This explains why many people opt for organically-grown lettuce grown in farms that do not use pesticides, fungicides, insecticides, or any other forms of chemicals.
In a journal article Pesticide Residues in Commercial Lettuce, Onion, and Potato Samples From Bolivia—A Threat to Public Health?, a study published at Environmental Health Insights, among the pesticides found in lettuce include cypermethrin, chlorpyrifos, λ-cyhalothrin, and difenoconazole.
Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf, in the 2013 book Encyclopedia Paranoiaca, wrote: “lettuce is among the “dirty dozen” foods on which pesticide residues have been most frequently found.”
Pesticides help farmers manage the threat of pests and diseases that can destroy an entire harvest if left untreated.
An online article from North Carolina State identifies aphids, beet armyworm, cabbage looper, cutworms, leafhopper
imported cabbageworm, and whitefly as some of the common pests that attack lettuce plants.
Pesticides and other chemicals are used against these pests.
- Aphids – Kill aphids using neem oil, insecticidal soap, or horticultural oil. You can also use the pesticide malathion, which is the most commonly used organophosphate insecticide in the United States, or rotenone, a selective, non-specific insecticide typically used in home gardens for insect control.
- Beet armyworm – Use natural insecticides such as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt-azaiwi strain) and spinosad. This has proven effective against against young armyworms, preventing them from maturing and doing more harm to the lettuce plants.
- Cabbage looper – To kill this pest, use Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) spray, insecticidal soap spray, or anti-parasite spray spinosad.
- Cutworms – Pesticides such as carbaryl will kill cutworms. Pyrethroid insecticides like cyfluthrin and the insecticide permethrin are also useful for this purpose.
- Leafhopper – Use pyrethroid insecticide like bifenthrin, organophosphates insecticide like malathion, pyrethrins, or any systemic insecticide (acephate, imidacloprid or disulfoton).
- Imported cabbageworm – Bacillus thuringiensis and spinosad are organically acceptable methods of controlling imported cabbageworm infestation.
- Whitefly – Malathion or Pyrethrins are effective against whiteflies.
Heirloom head lettuce varieties come from different parts of the US and of the world.
- Aunt Mae’s came from the Zimmerman family from Brush Valley, Pennsylvania, who gave seeds to Mae Smith of Millheim, Pennsylvania, who, in turn, gave it to her nephew Nestor Keene, a barber who grew this type of lettuce in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania. The seed was donated to the SSE in 1994 by Kelly Yeaton, also from Pennsylvania.
- Baquieu, a 19th-century heirloom variety, is believed to have originated from Germany.
- Bunte Forellenschluss and Forellenschluss are both Austrian heirloom.
- Capitan is a Dutch variety.
- Ella Kropf came from Stewardson, Illinois.
- Exchage (SSE) by Pam Andrew of Arizona in 1988.
- Grandma Hadley’s Lettuce came from Flossie Cramer of Crawford County, Illinois, and was donated to the Seed Savers.
- Grandpa Admire’s Lettuce came from the family of Civil War veteran George Admire who settled in Putnam County, Missouri.
- Gulley’s Favorite was grown by the Gulley family in Oklahoma since 1890. The seed for this heirloom head lettuce was donated to SSE in 1992 by Lucille Reeves.
- Kagraner Sommer originates from Germany.
- Merveille De Quatre Saisons is from France.
- Parris Island is from Parris Island, South Carolina, first introduced in 1952.
- Red Romaine has been grown in the US since the 18th century.
- Sanguine Ameliore or strawberry cabbage lettuce is a rare French heirloom brought to the United States.
- Summertime was bred at Oregon State University in the 1980s.
- Tennis Ball was grown in Monticello, Virginia
- Three Hearts came from Alsace-Lorraine (now Alsace–Moselle) in France. The seed for the Three Heart lettuce was donated to the SSE by Steve and Anna Marie Stoller of North Judson, Indiana, in 2005.
- Webb’s Wonderful, an 1890 heirloom head lettuce, originated from England.
- Winter Density, a.k.a. Craquerelle du Midi, is a French heirloom from the 19th century.
- Yugoslavian Red Butter Lettuce came from a peasant family in Marburg, Yugoslavia (now Slovenia).
Like most lettuces sold in the market, heirloom head lettuces are sold in loose plastic bags. Clean, ready-to-eat heirloom head lettuces are sold in plastic containers with a lid.
Some come in round or rectangular waterproof transparent clamshell boxes with a lid made of PET material that can be used both for storage or display.
Some companies prefer to use a sealable and reclosable transparent vented plastic produce bag made with high-clarity lamination film. The stiff material provides strength for product protection. This is important because lettuce leaves are tender and susceptible to bruising.
You’ll also find lettuces sold in plastic packaging with a Grab and Go handle for convenience.
Another packaging option is the vented stand-up produce pouch. The design of the bag allows it to stand upright, which is ideal for display and storage purposes.
Companies that seek to be environment-friendly opt for packaging made from recycled materials like recycled PET and post-consumer recycled PET.
It may not be explicitly stated in some packaging, but some lettuce packaging are made from plant-based plastics (PLA).
Lettuces aren’t individually packed yet if you buy in bulk. These are usually in bushels, cartons, or crates.
Heirloom head lettuce seeds are sold in pouches.
You can eat heirloom head lettuce raw. According to Lois Hole, in the book I’ll Never Marry a Farmer: Lois Hole on Life, Learning and Vegetable Gardening, Parris Island “is a fantastic choice for Caesar salads.”
The flavor profile of lettuces may vary from one variety or type to another, but not to the point that you can distinguish a variety based on the taste alone, since lettuces share an almost homogenous flavor profile. It is still worth mentioning how each heirloom head lettuce tastes according to growers who grew them and ate them regularly. Bibb and Kagraner Sommer both have a buttery taste and velvety texture. Forellenschluss leaves are described as “flavorful.” Summertime has “a wonderfully sweet taste.”
While it is common for lettuce to be eaten raw, lettuce also has its place in the kitchen when it comes to cooking green leafy vegetables.
Rule number one (and the only rule) when it comes to cooking lettuce – any kind of lettuce – is to cook it quick. Lettuce is easily overcooked and when this happens, you will end up with soggy leaves which are, oftentimes, unpleasant to look at.
To cook, you can either put the leaves whole or slice the lettuce leaves into smaller pieces.
Lettuce leaves can be used for making garden salad, hamburger, sandwich, or wrapped food like rolls and burritos. Because of its color, taste, and texture, lettuce is used in a wide variety of culinary applications.
Lettuce is good for recipes that require braising, boiling, or sautéing. Use it when making soup. Prepare lettuce using olive oil or champagne vinegar.
The flavor of the lettuce goes well with salt and pepper, arugula, Dijon mustard, garlic, shallots, cumin, parsley, and chervil. Use it alongside fruits like oranges or pears. It is also delicious with carrots, green peas, walnuts, or almonds, with poached eggs or crusty bread, or with seafood like tuna and shrimp.
When cooking, play to their strengths. For example, the Parris Island lettuce has very crunchy stems (which is probably one of the reasons why this is a favorite in the southeastern U.S.), so use it for dishes where the crunchy stems can improve the overall appeal of the food.
An heirloom head lettuce you want to keep in storage to use later should be wrapped unwashed in a loose bag lined with a paper towels and stored in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator, with a temperature that ranges between 40 and 45ºF. Properly stored, the lettuce will retain its freshness for 3 to 5 days.
An important reminder: make sure there is no fruit there that can cause the lettuce to wilt faster. Fruits like bananas, apples, and pears can do this, as a result of the natural gas these fruits release.
Lettuce is known for its vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. Lettuce is a low-calorie, low-fat, high-nutrition food that contains vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K, calcium, iron, folate, fiber, protein, molybdenum, and anthocyanins that contain health-boosting antioxidants that have anti-inflammatory properties.
Adding lettuce in your diet can help you in lowering your blood sugar.