Lettuce as a Complex Environment

I have been harvesting lettuce seed recently. Usually I just put a palm below one of the dandelion like flowers and with the finger tips of the other hand, massage the ripe seeds from the flower. The ripe seeds fall right out, along with a bunch of chaff.

As a child, I used to go out in boats with my father. He was a professor of ichthyology, he studied fish. We would go out with buckets of formaldehyde, to preserve our catches. One of the most interesting tasks we persued was collecting samples of all the camouflaged life that was teeming in the seaweed. Tiny shrimp, crabs, fish, insects and sea horses blended into the seaweed that was quite thick with all the creatures. If all of them just ate the seaweed, it would have been gone quickly. Instead these creatures mostly hid in, filtered from, hunted, cleaned and on occasion, ate the seaweed. It was a balance forged over the ages.

Several years ago, I planted a bunch of lettuce from every source I could. I wanted to find the single lettuce that did best for me, and tasted the best. This way, I could raise one lettuce and have pure seed each year. My test was a failure. Too many lettuces were delightful, but did not fare well. Too many were not quite what I wanted. A lot did not germinate evenly or at all. Some varieties fell prey to insects instantly, some could not take the weather. I enjoyed a lot of them, but I resigned myself to buying seed each year and not keeping a variety. I let a bunch of them go to seed hoping to play with a hybrid, but I did not know how or when to harvest the seed, I let it dry out completely and rain spoiled most of my chances to figure it out.

So you know, keep watering the lettuce, when the parasols on the seeds open up, preparing to catch the wind, then the seed is ripe. You can pull them out by the parasol, or gently roll the still green flower base, and free the seeds.

The next year I had a bunch of volunteers come up. After sampling a few leaves, it was clear that this romaine was just what we wanted. You can take mature leaves off and it keeps producing for months, it is just sweet enough and just bitter enough to be perfect. The stem is crunchy the leaves are tender, it does great in a salad or on a sandwich, so here it was, a gift from nature, the lettuce of my dreams.

So now I grow huge amounts, remove the plants I don’t like for one reason or another, and let them go to seed, so I keep a broad genetic base, and always have extra seed. I suspect that when I got all that lettuce seed, I got something else. Something that a lot of people would never have noticed. Most people spray or pick the entire plant, and never see it go to seed.

A lettuce plant can grow tall, and live for a long time while producing seed month after month, if it is kept healthy. As you can see from this picture, it is a big mass of buds, seeds, leaves and stems. On this mass is a resin of sorts, so it is also sticky.

Lettuce gone to Seed

This time I decided to go for a huge mass of seeds. I bent the heads over a large steel bowl, and then worked each of the dandilion like flowers with my fingers. the ripe seeds fall right out and split from their ‘parasol.’ I shook the entire head and gently rubbed the slightly sticky resinous mass with my hand dropping even more seeds into the bowl.

I collected an amazing amount of seed, although it does not weigh much. I was just finishing when my wife called me to supper. After supper I went out to sift the seed from the chafe and pack it up. The seed was filled with bugs. The bugs blended in, but the surface was alive with the mass of moving bugs. I stopped counting different critters at about 9, as I was not sure if I was repeating or getting different ages mixed up. Apparently my lettuce is like the seaweed I picked through in my youth. The bugs are not as striking and wierd, they are mostly off white, pale green or barely yellow. But the same principals are here. The neat thing, is that my lettuce appears to be insect free. I get nice big leaves, and lots of seeds. So here in my yard is a Sargasso sea if you will. A complex environment.

I do not mind the bugs one bit. And while I can claim some rights as I am the one that prepares the soil, plants and waters these treasures, there is a balance here, that predates me. There is a symbiosis and an entire biological system in the lettuce I grow, that makes me a bit player. They patrol, protect, and preserve their home, my lettuce in ways I do not know. These critters do it for a living, I am just here for the lettuce.