We were told beautiful salads…

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Kinky, stubborn, headed, white … An evocative and poetic vocabulary for one of the most common vegetables on our table: salad! At the 9th edition of the Days of biodiversity organized by the Gnis the unknown biodiversity of the lettuce was honored, through observation plots presented by Richard FOURNAGE (HM Clause) followed by a tasting!

A long selection through the centuries

“Lettuce is originally a small salad with jagged, bitter leaves that looked like dandelions and grew in vacant lots, meadows and rocky areas,” explains Richard Fournage. “Moreover, the Romans avoided eating the leaves, but used the seeds for its medicinal properties and drew an edible oil.” Only in the Middle Ages, in Europe, do we see the first salads on the tables, raw or cooked. By dint of selection, varieties with broad leaves much less bitter that rose less seed had emerged.“But it was not until the last century, especially with seed companies like Clause, Vilmorin or Tézier, that the number of lettuce varieties will grow rapidly”, continues Richard Fournage. Appeared lettuce more head or red, but also new varieties such as Iceberg lettuce for sales in bags or varieties with thicker leaves such as Sucrines or Rougette.

Today, 300 species of lettuce are registered inOfficial French catalog of species and varieties and more than 1500 in the European Catalog. 

Lettuce, a champion of biodiversity in the kitchen garden

“I present four large families of lettuce,” says Richard Fournage. On 30 mini plots are presented beautiful salads to eat:

  • Batavia-type lettuce, with capped or open-port, which themselves are declined according to many morphotypes as: 
    1. The red batavia, that is to say with high concentration of anthocyanins which brings an original color salad 
    2. Ice Queen batavia that resists well to the cold of autumn 
    3. Iceberg batavia very suitable for salad mixtures sold in sachets. It has become the best-selling salad in the USA and Spain 
    4. The Lollo rossa, native to Italy, whose deep red foliage is very curly, grows back after each harvest.
  • Head lettuce, with tender leaves, the queen of markets and the most popular on our table and the oak leaf, not very dense but compact found in a range of colors from green to dark red.
  • Lettuces called “fat” with firmer leaves, embossed and turgid. Several varieties exist of all the colors as the hearts of sucrine, the rougettes which constitute niche markets not insignificant, in particular in the Europe of the South.
  • The Roman, more and more appreciated, because it keeps very well.

Adaptation to tastes and uses

Lettuces have adapted to the taste of consumers (color, texture, morphological aspect, bitterness …), but also to culinary uses and conservation and distribution needs. With the explosion of bagged salad consumption, varieties such as Iceberg lettuce or Romaine now dominate some markets. In France, dappled lettuce and oak leaves, however, remain the queens of markets and stalls of fruits and vegetables in supermarkets.

A continual and necessary agronomic adaptation

“Big changes in the improvement of lettuce, certainly less visible for the consumer, are disease resistance , the possibility of staggering the staggering of seedlings and resistance to high temperatures,” adds Richard Fournage. Lettuces now grow in winter, with varietiesadapted to short days, low light and low temperature to consume fresh salad all year round. “Most varieties in the catalog are also resistant against bream, fungus responsible for mildew. But the fight is never definitely won and new bream strains manage to get around this resistance. Continuous improvement, year after year, is therefore necessary … “.

A big work is thus provided by the breeders to look for new varieties which answer to the criteria of presentation (volume, port, color …) but also of rusticity, resistance to the necroses or the fight against an early seed rise .

“Once crosses (manuals) made between varieties, the most original lettuce and meeting a maximum of improvement criteria will be selected and entered in the Catalog. Only then can they be marketed to market gardeners and gardeners, “ concludes our guide.

Dr. Kimberly Seltzer

Postdoctoral Scholar, UC Berkeley Research Assistant, MIT

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