Lettuce was grown and used by the Greeks and Persians as early as 500 B.C. Today, a huge number of varieties of Lactuca sativa have been bred from early wild forms. Suitable for gardens large and small, ornamental or edible, these varieties are grown from the far north to the south of the North American continent. The Seed Savers Exchange Garden Seed Inventory (fourth edition) lists 381 varieties of lettuce. Choices abound, and range from leafy varieties, romaines, or head lettuces, some with leaves that are frilly and notched, or broad and wavy. Colors are wide ranging, include deep green, white, yellow, bronze, deep red, and burgundy. Some produce perfect compact heads, while others form bright, informal leafy hedges. All add a sort of elegance rare in a vegetable garden. Lettuces are esthetically appealing, and nutritionally they are good sources of calcium. Green leafy varieties also supply vitamins A, C, B1 and B2. Many lettuce varieties are difficult to ship and preserve for marketing purposes. Commercial growers annually supply only a few tested varieties that have proven to be good shippers. In some months of the year lettuce becomes expensive, scarce or altogether unavailable.
There are many reasons to grow lettuce. Considering its popularity in salads, it is a wonder that lettuce isn’t more prevalent than ornamental cabbage in many gardens. Lettuces require fertile soil, high in organic matter. Some lettuces prefer cooler, more humid conditions and become tough, scorched or bitter in harsh sunlight and heat, especially in South Florida. All of the varieties listed here have proven to be heat tolerant and are tasty and prolific.
The variety of Magenta Lettuce pictured above has shiny, slightly puckered, red-tinged leaves that form a whorled, conical head with a crispy, green heart.