Lettuce (Lactuca sativa) is an annual plant of the daisy family, Asteraceae. It is most often grown as a leaf vegetable, but sometimes for its stem and seeds. Lettuce is most often used for salads, although it is also seen in other kinds of food, such as soups, sandwiches and wraps; it can also be grilled. One variety, the woju (莴苣), or asparagus lettuce (Celtuce), is grown for its stems, which are eaten either raw or cooked. In addition to its main use as a leafy green, it has also gathered religious and medicinal significance over centuries of human consumption. Europe and North America originally dominated the market for lettuce, but by the late 20th century the consumption of lettuce had spread throughout the world. World production of lettuce and chicory for calendar year 2017 was 27 million tonnes, 56% of which came from China.
Lettuce was originally farmed by the ancient Egyptians, who transformed it from a weed whose seeds were used to create oil into an important food crop raised for its succulent leaves and oil-rich seeds. Lettuce spread to the Greeks and Romans, the latter of whom gave it the name lactuca, from which the English lettuce is ultimately derived. By 50 AD, many types were described, and lettuce appeared often in medieval writings, including several herbals. The 16th through 18th centuries saw the development of many varieties in Europe, and by the mid-18th century cultivars were described that can still be found in gardens.
Generally grown as a hardy annual, lettuce is easily cultivated, although it requires relatively low temperatures to prevent it from flowering quickly. It can be plagued by numerous nutrient deficiencies, as well as insect and mammal pests, and fungal and bacterial diseases. L. sativa crosses easily within the species and with some other species within the genus Lactuca. Although this trait can be a problem to home gardeners who attempt to save seeds, biologists have used it to broaden the gene pool of cultivated lettuce varieties.
Lettuce is a rich source of vitamin K and vitamin A, and a moderate source of folate and iron. Contaminated lettuce is often a source of bacterial, viral, and parasitic outbreaks in humans, including E. coli and Salmonella.
Lettuce’s native range spreads from the Mediterranean to Siberia, although it has been transported to almost all areas of the world. Plants generally have a height and spread of 15 to 30 cm (6 to 12 in). The leaves are colorful, mainly in the green and red color spectrums, with some variegated varieties. There are also a few varieties with yellow, gold or blue-teal leaves. Lettuces have a wide range of shapes and textures, from the dense heads of the iceberg type to the notched, scalloped, frilly or ruffly leaves of leaf varieties. Lettuce plants have a root system that includes a main taproot and smaller secondary roots. Some varieties, especially those found in the United States and Western Europe, have long, narrow taproots and a small set of secondary roots. Longer taproots and more extensive secondary systems are found in varieties from Asia.
Depending on the variety and time of year, lettuce generally lives 65–130 days from planting to harvesting. Because lettuce that flowers (through the process known as “bolting”) becomes bitter and unsaleable, plants grown for consumption are rarely allowed to grow to maturity. Lettuce flowers more quickly in hot temperatures, while freezing temperatures cause slower growth and sometimes damage to outer leaves. Once plants move past the edible stage, they develop flower stalks up to 1 m (3 ft 3 in) high with small yellow blossoms. Like other members of the tribe Cichorieae, lettuce inflorescences (also known as flower heads or capitula) are composed of multiple florets, each with a modified calyx called a pappus (which becomes the feathery “parachute” of the fruit), a corolla of five petals fused into a ligule or strap, and the reproductive parts. These include fused anthers that form a tube which surrounds a style and bipartite stigma. As the anthers shed pollen, the style elongates to allow the stigmas, now coated with pollen, to emerge from the tube. The ovaries form compressed, obovate (teardrop-shaped) dry fruits that do not open at maturity, measuring 3 to 4 mm long. The fruits have 5–7 ribs on each side and are tipped by two rows of small white hairs. The pappus remains at the top of each fruit as a dispersal structure. Each fruit contains one seed, which can be white, yellow, gray or brown depending on the variety of lettuce.
The domestication of lettuce over the centuries has resulted in several changes through selective breeding: delayed bolting, larger seeds, larger leaves and heads, better taste and texture, a lower latex content, and different leaf shapes and colors. Work in these areas continues through the present day. Scientific research into the genetic modification of lettuce is ongoing, with over 85 field trials taking place between 1992 and 2005 in the European Union and United States to test modifications allowing greater herbicide tolerance, greater resistance to insects and fungi and slower bolting patterns. However, genetically modified lettuce is not currently used in commercial agriculture.
A hardy annual, some varieties of lettuce can be overwintered even in relatively cold climates under a layer of straw, and older, heirloom varieties are often grown in cold frames. Lettuces meant for the cutting of individual leaves are generally planted straight into the garden in thick rows. Heading varieties of lettuces are commonly started in flats, then transplanted to individual spots, usually 20 to 36 cm (7.9 to 14.2 in) apart, in the garden after developing several leaves. Lettuce spaced further apart receives more sunlight, which improves color and nutrient quantities in the leaves. Pale to white lettuce, such as the centers in some iceberg lettuce, contain few nutrients.
Lettuce grows best in full sun in loose, nitrogen-rich soils with a pH of between 6.0 and 6.8. Heat generally prompts lettuce to bolt, with most varieties growing poorly above 24 °C (75 °F); cool temperatures prompt better performance, with 16 to 18 °C (61 to 64 °F) being preferred and as low as 7 °C (45 °F) being tolerated. Plants in hot areas that are provided partial shade during the hottest part of the day will bolt more slowly. Temperatures above 27 °C (81 °F) will generally result in poor or non-existent germination of lettuce seeds. After harvest, lettuce lasts the longest when kept at 0 °C (32 °F) and 96 percent humidity. Lettuce quickly degrades when stored with fruit such as apples, pears and bananas that release the ripening agent ethylene gas. The high-water content of lettuce (94.9 percent) creates problems when attempting to preserve the plant – it cannot be successfully frozen, canned or dried and must be eaten fresh. In spite of its high water content, traditionally grown lettuce has a low water footprint, with 237 liters of water required for each kilogram of lettuce produced. Hydroponic growing methods can reduce this water consumption by nearly two orders of magnitude.
Lettuce varieties will cross with each other, making spacing of 1.5 to 6 m (60 to 240 in) between varieties necessary to prevent contamination when saving seeds. Lettuce will also cross with Lactuca serriola (wild lettuce), with the resulting seeds often producing a plant with tough, bitter leaves. Celtuce, a lettuce variety grown primarily in Asia for its stems, crosses easily with lettuces grown for their leaves. This propensity for crossing, however, has led to breeding programs using closely related species in Lactuca, such as L. serriola, L. saligna, and L. virosa, to broaden the available gene pool. Starting in the 1990s, such programs began to include more distantly related species such as L. tatarica. Seeds keep best when stored in cool conditions, and, unless stored cryogenically, remain viable the longest when stored at −20 °C (−4 °F); they are relatively short lived in storage. At room temperature, lettuce seeds remain viable for only a few months. However, when newly harvested lettuce seed is stored cryogenically, this life increases to a half-life of 500 years for vaporized nitrogen and 3,400 years for liquid nitrogen; this advantage is lost if seeds are not frozen promptly after harvesting.
There are several types or cultivars of lettuce. Three types — leaf, head and cos or romaine — are the most common. There are seven main cultivar groups of lettuce, each including many varieties:
- Leaf – Also known as looseleaf, cutting or bunching lettuce, this type has loosely bunched leaves and is the most widely planted. It is used mainly for salads.
- Romaine/Cos – Used mainly for salads and sandwiches, this type forms long, upright heads. This is the most often used lettuce in Caesar salads.
- Iceberg/Crisphead – The most popular type in the United States, it is very heat-sensitive and was originally adapted for growth in the northern United States. It ships well, but is low in flavor and nutritional content, being composed of even more water than other lettuce types.
- Butterhead – Also known as Boston or Bibb lettuce, and traditionally in the UKas “round lettuce“, this type is a head lettuce with a loose arrangement of leaves, known for its sweet flavor and tender texture.
- Summercrisp – Also called Batavian or French crisp, this lettuce is midway between the crisphead and leaf types. These lettuces tend to be larger, bolt-resistant and well-flavored.
- Celtuce/Stem – This type is grown for its seedstalk, rather than its leaves, and is used in Asian cooking, primarily Chinese, as well as stewed and creamed dishes.
- Oilseed – This type is grown for its seeds, which are pressed to extract an oil mainly used for cooking. It has few leaves, bolts quickly and produces seeds around 50 percent larger than other types of lettuce.
- Red leaf lettuce.
The butterhead and crisphead types are sometimes known together as “cabbage” lettuce, because their heads are shorter, flatter, and more cabbage-like than romaine lettuces.
In 2017, world production of lettuce (report combined with chicory) was 27 million tonnes, with China alone producing 15.2 million tonnes or 56% of the world total.
Lettuce is the only member of the genus Lactuca to be grown commercially. Although China is the top world producer of lettuce, the majority of the crop is consumed domestically. Spain is the world’s largest exporter of lettuce, with the US ranking second.
Western Europe and North America were the original major markets for large-scale lettuce production. By the late 1900s, Asia, South America, Australia and Africa became more substantial markets. Different locations tended to prefer different types of lettuce, with butterhead prevailing in northern Europe and Great Britain, romaine in the Mediterranean and stem lettuce in China and Egypt. By the late 20th century, the preferred types began to change, with crisphead, especially iceberg, lettuce becoming the dominant type in northern Europe and Great Britain and more popular in western Europe. In the US, no one type predominated until the early 20th century, when crisphead lettuces began gaining popularity. After the 1940s, with the development of iceberg lettuce, 95 percent of the lettuce grown and consumed in the US was crisphead lettuce. By the end of the century, other types began to regain popularity and eventually made up over 30 percent of production. Stem lettuce was first developed in China, and remains primarily cultivated in that country.
In the early 21st century, bagged salad products increased in the lettuce market, especially in the US where innovative packaging and shipping methods prolonged freshness.
In the United States in 2013, California (71%) and Arizona (29%) produced nearly all of the country’s fresh head and leaf lettuce, with head lettuce yielding $9400 of value per acre and leaf lettuce $8000 per acre.
Depending on the variety, lettuce is an excellent source (20% of the Daily Value, DV, or higher) of vitamin K (97% DV) and vitamin A (21% DV), with higher concentrations of the provitamin A compound, beta-carotene, found in darker green lettuces, such as romaine. With the exception of the iceberg variety, lettuce is also a good source (10-19% DV) of folate and iron.