Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Five Garden Lettuces

Speckled lettuce (top right), Dixter MI lettuce (top left), Black Seeded Simpson lettuce (bottom left), New Red Fire MI lettuce (bottom right) and Amish Deer Tongue (centre).

This is the best year by far for lettuce in this new garden, out of the 5 seasons we have been gardening here. It helps that the weather has mostly swung between cool and only just pleasantly warm, and that there has been lots of rain. It also helps that we have been building up the soil with compost, and finally, I think the other big boost came from us deciding to add a little dolomitic lime to the leaf bed rotation beds this spring. The soil is still pretty sandy, but not quite so acidic as a result (we hope).

Lettuce in general prefers a slightly alkaline soil, with plenty of organic matter and moisture, and moderate temperatures. Prolongued hot, dry periods will lead to bolting (plants flowering) and cause them to go bitter.

Seed colour is mentioned as it one of the ways to be sure you have the true variety - lettuces are often similar and confusable, not to mention that there is a long history of seed sellers giving them different names to convince their customers that they had something new (or in fact they had their competitors' variety).

For some reason we did not grow a few of our favourite lettuces from past years this year. I guess because we had so much other seed on hand. Lettuce seed does not keep very well. It's best the next year, and you will get some germination the next year, and maybe the year after that if you store it well (cool, or better yet in the freezer) but after that, it's done.

Speckled Lettuce is, amongst other things, an old Ontario heirloom, having been grown by Waterloo area Mennonites since the 1790's. Ark of Taste describes it as originating in Holland in the 1660's; from there it went to Germany which is presumably where the Mennonites picked it up. In German, it is called Forellenschluss, meaning speckled like a trout, and you will sometimes see it sold under that name, although my impression is that in that case it is more likely to be a strain more recently from Germany. According to William Woys Weaver, there are three distinct varieties circulating under this name. One of them was the outcome of a cross between Brown Dutch and Black Seeded Tennisball, and another (Dutch Butter) is the original Dutch variety.

There is a similar lettuce from Aleppo, in modern-day Syria, called Spotted Aleppo, and I have to say mine looks more like it might be that. Heritage Harvest gives Spotted Aleppo a history that matches up fairly well with the Ark of Taste description. She also sells seed for Speckled, but describes it as a butterhead, which mine is definitely not, and says that it was originally known as Thorburns Orchid lettuce. William Woys Weaver also lists Golden Spotted as another name for this.

I also have other speckled lettuces in my garden; these came from a packet of Mortons' Lettuce Mix which I purchased from Prairie Garden Seeds. Some of these have a distinctive oak-leaf shape to them, but are otherwise pretty similar. So that red speckled gene plainly can get around; it seems probable that Frank Morton used one or the other of the old speckled varieties in his lettuce breeding, if not more.

Whatever these varieties are, all the speckled lettuces I have grown have all done very well, growing in our dry, acidic, sandy main beds and in our wet, acidic, clayish lower beds. The taste is good, the texture is fine, they are hardy, resilient and slow to bolt, and finally they are attractive and amusing. What more could you want in a lettuce? We expect to have speckled lettuces in our garden for many years to come.

Sixty days to maturity. I believe the seed for all these varieties has been white.

Dixter MI came from William Dam Seeds, and I can find next to no information about it other than their listing. I can't even figure out what the MI part of the name means, although I assume it refers to disease resistance. You will see it as part of the name of a number of modern lettuce varieties, and I assume this is a modern lettuce variety since I can't find it on even fairly recent variety lists.

At any rate, this is a very beautiful lettuce: an upright, strong growing red romaine with an intense colour and lovely form. It has always grown very well and vigorously for us. It suffers from the problem of many red lettuces though, and turns bitter at the slightest breath of heat. Even at its best, in cool spring weather, it isn't the best tasting lettuce, although it's reasonably good. I'm not quite sure why we keep growing it. I guess we are just seduced by the beauty of it, and the fact that it grows so well even in our difficult soil. But if I could find a better tasting red romaine that grew just as well, I would switch.

Fifty days to maturity. White seed.

Black Seeded Simpson is the ultimate workhorse lettuce. It was introduced by Peter Henderson & Company of New York in the 1870's, according to William Woys Weaver. Today it is still one of the most widely available lettuces for the home grower, a favourite for its light, sweet flavour and quick and reliable growth, and ability to hold in the garden for a while. We generally sow it thickly and fail to thin it, then pull it out in clumps when we want it. It tolerates this treatment quite well. It can be better grown though, with outer leaves picked for quite some time, until eventually the plant will bolt. Or you've eaten it; whichever.

The leaves are long and reasonably broad, in a fine light chartreuse colour and with a soft, rumpled texture. They form a good bunch, but don't head up. This has been one of our better lettuces for holding up under hot and dry conditions, although it may not hold up as well in very changeable weather. As noted, the leaves are very soft and rumpled and so the stems and cores may rot in very wet weather as the leaves hold the water for too long.

Weaver claims that this is a difficult lettuce to keep true when saving seed. This surprises me a little, given how readily available it is, but I have to admit is is so readily available that I  have yet to make the attempt.

Forty-five days to maturity. Seed is not so much black as a dark brown.

New Red Fire MI is a new lettuce to me; I received seed in a trade this winter and had not previously heard of it. However, it is carried by both William Dam and Hawthorn Seeds. This is actually a very commonly grown commercial lettuce variety; if you have bought red leafy lettuce at the grocery store the odds are good it was this one. It has done well for us. As usual, the flavour is not quite as good as the best plain green lettuces, but it is still a very good lettuce, and it has held up well in warmer (not super hot) weather. It isn't the darkest, reddest lettuce I have ever seen, but it is a very good definite red and makes a nice contrast with green lettuces. It is said to be slow to bolt and it seems that way so far... no sign yet although some of the other kinds of lettuces are definitely starting to stretch for the sky. It is said to have good disease resistance, but we have had no troubles in the lettuces yet so can't confirm that.

I can't find any history on this lettuce either, although I found a reference to it being a new introduction in 1993. If so, it has certainly become extremely popular extremely quickly.

Fifty to sixty days to maturity. Seed is white (buff).

Amish Deer Tongue - (you didn't know deer had a religion, did you?) - is an older lettuce with a better recorded history. Deer Tongue lettuce dates back to the 1740's, according to Ark of Taste, although Amish Deer Tongue only goes back to the 1840's. I assume this means that it is a strain developed in the U.S.A, amongst the Amish. The name comes from the long, narrow, triangular and presumably deer tongue shaped leaves, which grow in a bunch and don't form a head.

I was interested to see a suggestion that this is a lettuce that can be cooked like spinach. It certainly has a very unusual texture for a lettuce, much thicker and firmer than usual. I find I don't love it in salad because of that texture, but who knows? You might. It is also supposed to be both heat and cold tolerant, and slow to bolt. Also, it should be good for picking over a period of time, with good regrowth. It gets recommended as a lettuce for sandwiches.

Fifty days to maturity; seed is black (dark brown).

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