No matter what sort of lettuce you want, you’ll find it – there’s a lettuce for everybody. The major groups are romaine, crisphead or heading, butterhead, loose leaf, batavian and Chinese. Romaines have big crisp leaves and stand much taller than the others. Crispheads include the classic iceberg lettuce. Butterhead lettuce forms loose leaves and does have a buttery flavor. Batavian lettuce stays crisp in the heat. Some people say this is actually a version of the butterhead, although the Batavians also have crisphead characteristics, so others class them with crispheads. Chinese lettuce is celtuce, which has ribs like celery and leaves like lettuce.
In my garden, romaine lettuces grow much better than any other kind. Every time I seed a mixed batch of lettuce, I get four or five times as many romaine seedlings as any of the others I seed. Speaking of seeding, if you’re trying to grow summer lettuce, put the seeds in a plastic bag or glass jar and store in the freezer for about a week before you put them in the ground; they’ll germinate better. Unless you live in a cool summer climate, you’ll also do better with summer lettuce in shady spots. Stick to heat-tolerant varieties for summer growing. Heat-tolerant doesn’t mean you can grow it in full sun and hot weather; it just means these varieties will last a little longer without getting bitter or going to seed. Once you get into the dog days of summer, lettuce tends to get bitter no matter what you do. Your best option is to only grow it about four inches high, cut it and let it regrow. But if it does get away from you, you may be able to salvage it. Immediately after picking, rinse well in clear cold water. Now soak it for about 15-20 minutes in a couple of gallons of water with 2 teaspoons of baking soda dissolved in it. Rinse, drain and refrigerate. This technique will take out most if not all of the bitterness. You can also use the soaked lettuce half and half with basil or other herbs to make pesto.
- Rouge d’ Hiver – leaves are both red and green, with more red in colder weather. Vilmorin listed it in 1885.
- Paris Island White Cos – this one is the most similar to the supermarket romaines, although it’s usually a darker green. It will get bitter quickly with too much heat or too little water. Developed in 1949.
- Iceberg – although many fancy cooks and nutritionists sneer at this lettuce, it’s been going strong since 1894. Admittedly, it doesn’t have the vitamins and antioxidants of its more colorful brethren, but home-grown and with most of its outer leaves (which are stripped off in the store), it’s pretty good.
- Ithaca – a more recent introduction than Iceberg, it’s also more deeply colored and stands up to heat better. However, both of these will really do better as spring lettuces.
- Reine des Glaces – this is a French heirloom. Of the three crispheads, I’d say it’s got the best flavor. It’s very cold tolerant (the name is french for Ice Queen, which should be a hint).
Butterhead, Boston and Bibb Varieties
- Big Boston – a Peter Henderson variety, brought from France in 1890. Grows large and stays tender.
- Brune d’ Hiver – another French lettuce, with red-blushed leaves. Introduced in 1855. This is a good one for fall planting and doesn’t take up much space.
- Buttercrunch – this is a great lettuce, which is why it’s been a standard-bearer for butterhead lettuces since it was developed in 1963. It’s heat-tolerant and slow to bolt. Crisp, juicy, buttery and mild. Buttercrunch is actually a cross between romaines and butterheads, with some characteristics of each type.
- Grandpa Admire’s – now this is an heirloom by any definition. Grown by Civil War vet George Admire, who was born in 1822, this heat tolerant and flavorful lettuce was passed down through succeeding generations until a descendant donated it to the Seed Savers exchange in the 1970s. Crinkled leaves splashed with bronze.
- Bibb – another classic, it’s a small version of Boston and considered a gourmet lettuce. It was developed from Boston by John Bibb of Kentucky in the 1850s.
- Merveille des Quatre Saisons Lettuce – it gets its name because it’s a lettuce that will generally do well all year round; you should grow it in the shade during the summer, however. The outer leaves are reddish and the inside pink and cream. A pre-1885 French heirloom.
- Tennis Ball Lettuce, a small butterhead and a Thomas Jefferson favorite, was pickled in a salt brine and served with meats in the 18th century.