How To Select The Perfect Lettuce Variety. There Are Four Types of Lettuce, Round, Cos, Iceberg and Loose Leaf, With Many Different Varieties. Choosing The Right One Depends On the Season, Soil, growing System and Many Other Factors. Below I List Some Varieties To Choose From.
My perfect lettuce variety recommendations are based on my commercial lettuce growing experience over several decades, where I grew half a million lettuce a year PLUS the many years since where I’ve been an amateur grower like so many other gardeners and allotment tenants. There is an article on how to grow lettuce available via this link.
Round or Butterhead Varieties
Round lettuce used to the the most popular type. Gardeners and commercial growers grew them and they were consumed by the million. I grew these by the hundreds of thousands, both under glass and in polytunnels and outdoors. My cropping season was from late March to Christmas with sowing every month (despite many seed companies still telling gardeners that lettuce should be sown from March to August).
Though I grew round lettuce in massive numbers I wasn’t that keen on them to eat. I preferred Cos Lettuce. To me round or butterhead lettuce are thin leaved and insubstantial. The flavour and texture are almost non existent. Bland is the best I can say of them. But, I must confess, they kept the financial wolf from my door for many years.
Cos Lettuce Varieties
This was also a very popular lettuce that was largely superseded by round lettuce. However, it has now regained some of its popularity and is often featured in specific recipes such as Ceasar Salad. There are also several Cos type lettuce varieties that, though not Cos, have many of the Cos characteristics.
Cos lettuce are an upright growing type. The look a bit like the London landmark, the gherkin! But they taste nothing like a gherkin of course. The flavour is stronger than round lettuce and the texture far more “leathery” due to the thick leaves and firm midribs. But don’t think this means they are leathery. Far from it. They have a firmer texture and are excellent when prepared as a chiffonade! In past generations people would sprinkle them with vinegar and granulated sugar. Its an acquired taste!
Iceberg & Crisp Lettuce Varieties
Iceberg are a crisp lettuce refinement in my book. Both are grown for their firm solid hearts. Crisp varieties include the Lakeland types such as Great Lakes, which I grew commercially in the 80s. They were however, in my experience, more prone to mildew than other lettuce and did better in cooler weather which, unfortunately is more likely to have weather conducive to mildew. They were superseded by iceberg type lettuce. Though famed for their lack of flavour iceberg keep a lot time in the fridge and are very crisp.
The first crisp lettuce I grew under glass was an autumn crop of a variety called Marmer. I was told they needed plenty of space to grow .. ideally planted 10×10 inches apart. I ignored this and went 9X8.5 inches and had a very good crop of very heavy, but smaller hearted lettuce. They caused a bit of a sensation in the commission markets as they had never been grown in the UK before that season. A premium price was paid and I planted a lot more the following spring. Again yields were excellent and prices v very high as the best hotels and restaurants snapped them up.
In the second year a lot of growers jumped on the bandwagon and prices dropped dramatically. As a grower the re4al profits lie in being the first to market with something unusual tha 4th market will buy. Being second carries few prizes!
Loose Leaf Lettuce Varieties
These are the non hearting type of lettuce that are grown for their loose leaves, often as cut and come again lettuce. They come in various shades of green plus red hues. Some are full leafed and some cut leaf or frisee.
As amateur growers and gardeners the way we grow might resemble the way commercial growers grow, but we can do things that they could never do at scale. A commercial grower plants and then harvests a whole plant before starting again. But we can harvest a few leaves at a time which means the plant keeps growing and providing more anymore harvests.
Harvesting leaves works well on round, cos and crisp lettuce. I recommend it on a small scale. Its efficient and means you always have something ready for the table.
Perfect Lettuce Varieties?
Interestingly different seed companies sometimes attribute a variety to different types. Eg Skilton is described variously as a crisp loose headed upright lettuce. So deciding which category it fits in is an inexact science! Personally I put it in loose leafed but it could just as easily fit into several other categories.
I’ve listed four types of lettuce. Other writers add more, such Oakleaf.
Round varieties of lettuce include:
All Year Around
Cos lettuce Varieties
Lobjoits Green Cos
Frisee de Beauregard
Iceberg and Crisp Lettuce Varieties
Loose Leaf Lettuce Varieties
Red Salad Bowl
Rosa di Trento
How Many Lettuce Varieties Are There?
I’ve no idea. Perhaps thousands. The problem with counting them is knowing which named varieties are called different things in different countries because lettuce seed has been taken around the world by travellers.
For example, my American friends grow Deer Tongue lettuce. It’s a variety they claimed was taken tithe USA in the mid 18th century by English settlers. It was first documented by the New York Agricultural Experiment Station in 1885 and is now a heirloom variety.
It reminds me a bit of Winter Density and is available online as Amish Deer Tongue lettuce. The name refers to the strange triangular shape of the leaf.
And to confuse the issue there is also a Red Deer Tongue lettuce!
With history like this I wonder if the variety is unique or if it is sold under other names in other parts of the world.
Is There a Perfect Lettuce Variety?
There’s not one variety that suits every growing condition and purpose. The whole reason there are so many varieties is that they have been bred to suit the various conditions and needs. But we can select from the thousands of varieties and find one that suits our needs. That said, most lettuce are fairly adaptable and will grow in a wide range of conditions. The final test however, it to experiment and try a variety in the conditions you have.
When I was a commercial grower I attended many lettuce trials where as many as 50-100 varieties would be grown in the same greenhouse or field with the same planting date. Being able to see them competing against one anther, being able to consider the weights and other measurable qualities of each variety made it much easier for me to select the varieties I’d use the following season. And let’s not forget, the varieties that do well in one season may not perform as well in another part of the year. I’ve known several superb spring grown crops that are abysmal in autumn. Seed companies do however tend to select those more flexible varieties for gardeners to buy as they don’t want the crop to fail in adverse conditions,
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