Seeds and Suds - Smooth Radish Greens

Join Steph and Ken for another episode of "Seeds and Suds"!

Each episode focuses on a unique addition to the farm while enjoying a cold beer...

Collards and Kale

Collards:  The Story of Mr. Collard

Zak Ettlinger, Lee North and Mr. Collard

Zak Ettlinger, Lee North and Mr. Collard

The e-mail read:


"I have a collard plant (quite sure it's a collard!) that has been growing in my garden for five to seven years. Have pictures, and just finished yesterday cutting back (again) and taking the leaves for collard greens tonight.
 :-))
The thing that is amazing to me is that I first tho't it was a weed that had wintered over in the garden, but something told me not to pull it out... so I left it and after a couple years, put a cage around it so that no one else would destroy it. It worked, and it's grown to where it spreads out about a diameter of six or seven feet, about four or five feet high.

I've taken pictures and would be glad to send, but if someone could come out and see Mr. Collard, I'd sure appreciate. And let us know if it's really a collard (or a "bigfoot" veggie hiding as one?)"

Sincerely,  E. Lee North


I received a copy of Lee North's e-mail through Craig Cramer, Communications Specialist, Department of Horticulture at Cornell (http://www.gardening.cornell.edu/cdc) who suggested that I might want to take a look at this ancient collard plant since I live just a half hour away from Mr. Lee.  So, we made arrangements to meet and sure enough, there was the collard in question with 2 " trunk with a fair development of xylem (wood). Mr. North had just cut the collard plant back removing most of it's four foot long branches full of long green seed pods so these pictures don't show it's former hugeness! It is indeed a very hardy specimen.


Whether it was a cabbage or collard is hard to tell since they are so very closely related and after the first year, cabbages tend to produce loose leafy growth instead of heads. Lee had pictures of the specimen going back several years but it's origin had been forgotten.

I gathered some green seed pods from his compost and ripened the seed but they proved not to be viable. It may be that they just weren't ripe enough to mature off the plant or maybe, as with many brassicas, you need more than one plant.  Sometimes there is a self-incompatibility problem. Lee could propagate his plant by taking cuttings, using a rooting hormone and a mist table.

There are members of the brassica family that have been selected to grow over a number of years. A British variety of broccoli called "Nine Star" becomes a giant of a plant and in Great Britain where they have mild winters it is considered a perennial whose prolific florets can be cut as a spring vegetable every year. Cutting the flower buds as with broccoli or the seed pods as with Mr. North does with Mr. Collard before they mature may fool the plant into extending what is normally a biennial existance into a greater longevity. In fact, in the coastal regions of the U.S. south where collard greens are harvested through winter into spring they will survive a number of years but mostly they are allowed to reseed since the young plants tend to be more vigorous and productive.

Other brassicas that behave in a somewhat perennial fashion is a cabbage relative called the "walking stick cabbage" which produces a several foot woody trunk that is cured and used as a cane.  Although propagated by seed some say, the best walking sticks are produced from cuttings off the finest parent plants. The variety, "Thousand Headed" kale has also wintered over and over to resprout an abundance of greens.

Southern Greasy Collard

Southern Greasy Collard

No, it's perfectly dry- even though it looks wet. This is the Greasy Collard that we've been growing since 1983. We came across the seed in an old farm and hardware store in Alabama where the seed was still being scooped by the tablespoon out of small wooden drawers. A year later the only wholesale supplier of the Greasy Collard dropped the line and it was suddenly out of commerce without warning. USDA researchers had done some preliminary studies that indicated that the abnormal waxy cuticle covering the leaves of the Greasy Collard had the ability to dramatically lower pest damage. Usually the waxy leaf coating of collards, like cabbages have a dull waxy surface.  Greasy Collards has the glossy leaf trait.  One of the researchers contacted us in 1986 to see whether we had the variety. Fortunately, we had produced several ounces of seed from overwintered plants that summer and sent the researchers the seed they needed. We don't know what the results of their experiments but we do know that they were interested in incorporating the "glossy leaf trait" into other members of the Brassica family. A good idea. If one could succeed in doing that, it would be a coup for organic farmers especially.

We raised a nice seed crop from plants that were mulched heavily in leaves and overwintered. Collards are capable of producing a huge amount of seed.  You should try it.

Dr. Jeff McCormick, the founder of Southern Exposure Seeds also kept seeds of Southern Greasy and over the years developed a possible different breeding line that exhibited off-types.   Since the "greasy-leaf" trait is recessive, it can easily be lost when "Greasy" receives stray pollen from any brassica that is in bloom at the same time.  Jeff managed to rogue out the off types and managed to restore the purity of "Greasy".  Southern Exposure Seeds is a good source of heirlooms from the South and should be checked out as a source ofunique varieties.


Kale

F1 Hybrid parent kales

F1 Hybrid parent kales

F2 generation from a mass cross of the two popular kales

F2 generation from a mass cross of the two popular kales

Tuscan Kale

Tuscan Kale

Kales and collards are just cabbages that never form heads- and brussel sprouts are just miniature cabbages. They are all in the same family and as members of the same species within the same family, they are able to cross pollinate with one another. While that might lead to the development of some very interesting varieties, it also could reduce the quality of some fine old varieties. When you are contemplating raising part of your brassica crop for seed- you have to make the decision to isolate or not. It's not as simple as that, because; essentially, most brassicas have the ability to cross (with varying degrees of success) with one another if they are in bloom at the same time. We don't see a lot of brassica oddities though because Cabbage, Kale, Collards and Brussels Sprouts are biennials. If they manage to escape consumption the first year then they have to overwinter successfully. They take quite a bit of space and time to produce their seed stalks the next summer and by that time the gardener had probably tilled them under!

Tuscan Kale really comes into it's own come fall. The plants are towering- nearly three feet and full of the savoyed lanceolate almost black leaves. People stop and stare at our row of Toscan Kale also known as Italian Kale. Black Kale, Dinosaur Kale and Lacinado Blue Kale are all variations. It's a different kind of kale to what most of us are used to. I find it one of the most vigorous. I break off a few of long leaves from each of several plants when I want to cook up a pot of kale. And the flavor, you couldn't ask for anything better during those early winter suppers.

The very fringed and curled "Scotch" kales, show some of their inherent genetic diversity, bluegreen, blue, reds and deep greens. Collards are a bit plain but the varieties of Kales are on the rise as tall growing and short varieties as well "Russian" kinds, ornamental and heirlooms are being hybridized and selected for by a new wave of independent breeders. Their beauty is often found garnishing a plate or the salad bar, but what a pity- their hidden beauty is in the storehouse of vitamins and nutrients a plate of these hold for the connoisseur of cooked "greens".

Radish and Mustard Greens

I believe that I now have my perfect radish for greens.  Out of a selection of oriental radishes these produced nice radish greens.  Tender, smooth-leaf, juicy and tender, mild not hot but with the zip of the radish flavor.  The way I like them.  If the little red salad radishes that we buy at the store had smooth leaves instead of the fuzzy; even prickly leaves they do have, salad connoisseurs would have found out ages ago that the "greens" are better than the roots in salad.  Many people already have discovered that the young seed pods are even better than the roots are in salad.  The greens make fine salads alone or in combination with lettuce.  Add a little oil and vinegar and you have a great salad.  Some radishes used for greens in Asia have small woody roots but this one produces very large roots.

Radish greens

Radish greens

Giant radish roots

Giant radish roots

My leaf radish produces little white roots that grow into huge white roots.  This is only the tip of the iceberg.  The bulk of the root is below ground.  Evergreen Seeds (find on the internet) based in California specializes in offering seeds of oriental crops.  I grew my leaf radishes from seeds that I ordered several years ago and they have been crossing and segregating into variations ever since.  Most of their radishes are now hybrid kinds.  I don't know why.  Save the seeds anyway or if you aren't a seed saver, you ought to patronize the company since they are nice folks and provide good service.

Mustard Greens
 

I also grew these plants (above) recently from old seed I bought several years ago off the rack.  It was marketed as a leaf radish (Raphanus sativus) by Ferry Morse Health Smart line of seeds.  I seem to remember the cultivar "Vit".  While Hong Vit is a radish cultivar used for producing "baby greens"; the plants were we grew from the seed were mustards as in "mustard greens" (Brassica juncea);  possibly "mustard spinach" (Brassica perviridis).  I am still trying to figure what exactly they are.  They are pungent like mustards and cook up to mild "greens".  I'm not sure whether I would use them as salad greens;  maybe when young.  The plants mature to produce elongate leaves unlike my other mustards.  The nice thing about these plants is that they produced ample greens and still are in early December but they also throw flowers and seed stalks intermittently through their first year and so you can get a nice amount of seeds without the entire crop bolting.  A nice sustainable crop.

musroot.jpg

These are the mustards that grow all over my garden.   They reseed and produce large bright green hardy plants and plenty of cutting greens with a pungent mustard "kick".  They also produce large white roots which can be harvested and sliced to add mustard flavor to a salad.  I don't know what this mustard is since I don't have a lot of experience growing mustard greens.  I am a bit confused over the large white root which is tender and turnip like.  Of course, mustards, turnips and radishes are closely related and are in the Brassica Family.  What may be Ferry Morses radish is my mustard and maybe my mustard is another's turnip.  It's just so confusing.  Go to this site and maybe you can figure the Brassicas out...I will leave this to another day:   http://www.plantnames.unimelb.edu.au/Sorting/Brassica.html

Evaluation of Microgreens

One of my many hats besides coordinating breeding efforts is helping to run the Eastern Campus Botanical Center in Riverhead, NY.  Part of Suffolk County Community College, the Center is a resource for horticultural and natural science information and training on the East End of Long Island and we teach ecological land care, identification of native plants and in association with the Culinary Center which is also part of the Eastern Campus, some courses related to that discipline.  Because of the off-season demand for micro-greens among the upscale restaurants we did an extensive trial and evaluation run to see what the potential might be.
 
By definition micro-greens are seedlings harvested when the first true leaves appear (just after the cotyledon or seed leaf stage).  They are appearing in upscale markets and restaurants and locally command a luxury item price of up to $3 to $5/ounce (that is "per ounce").  Those who sing the praises of micro-greens point to their nutritional benefits.  Like sprouts, some types of young seedlings have remarkably high levels of vitamins, minerals and other health-giving phytochemicals.  Chefs look at their sometimes intense flavor or the color and texture that they offer asdish confetti, brightening up main dishes or salads.  I don't know, I think of them mostly as a kind of fad but we'll see.  They probably said that about parsley.
 
Some "greens" are well suited for sale and consumption at the cotyledon or micro-green stage, others kinds of greens are best harvested at the "petite stage" or the larger "baby stage" where the plant has developed clustered leaves.  Harvesting at these extremely young stages consumes the entire plant just as the growth is about to become exponential.  For many farmers and growers of "greens" it seems counter-intuitive that one would harvest plants just as they were reaching their potential.  Most growers of microgreens are indeed not farmers but "sprouters" who don't work in the field; but instead, grow in hoop houses or warehouses using hydroponic techniques.  Farmers generally wait to the "young stage" to harvest immature leaves are blended together to make up a mesclun.  In shearing the young leaves, they leave the plant's crown that can provide additional "flushes" of leaves to harvest.
 
As an experiment;  students, faculty and visitors evaluated over 50 kinds of microgreens which were grown at he Botanical Center to learn about their potential, care and requirements.  These were sown on Jan 18 and Jan 29.  Earlier sowings were grown at lower night temperatures (45-50°F), later sowings at slightly higher night temperatures (60-65°F).  They were grown in a polyhouse environment until the last two weeks, then moved into a glass house (70°F) for evaluation and display purposes.  All seeds were thickly sown in half flats with either a peat/perlite mix or compost mix fortified with a dry organic fertilizer.  Once transferred to the glasshouse they received a weak water soluble fertilizer solution.  While available literature describes micro-greens as a 14 day crop, winter sun angle at 40°N latitude and further decrease in light due to growth under plastic as well as lower growing temperatures extended this time dramatically.  Photos were taken on March 12.

Genovese Basil

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Although the common Genovese basil took a long time to grow to microgreen size and required warmer temperatures to germinate well, it was appealing from both the flavor and attractiveness as a garnish.  Genovese basil can be sown quite thick, is available and economical in large seed quantities.  40 days from January sowing.  Rated very highly as a micro-green. 


Curled Cress

Curled Cress is available in large seed quantities for low cost and develops into an attractive microgreen.  It can be grown slower at lower temperatures.  Ours fared well at moderate temperatures.  Crinkled Cress from Frank Morton's breeding program and available from FEDCO seeds had a better texture.  The greens are pungent, hot with a strong mustard like flavor, (maybe a bit like horseradish) that is pleasing and could complement a number of foods. Favored as a "petite" green, harvested with several small leaves when it is most attractive.  40 day harvest.

Chard

At the young 50 day stage, chard and red beet (right) develop into nearly identical microgreens.  We didn't notice much coloration with the rainbow chards except for the red stems of some.  Some kinds of beet such as Bull's Blood produced darker, attractive micro-greens (no photo).  Both beet and chard produces crisp and juicy microgreens with a pleasant light spinach flavor.  Micro-greens can grow quite thick since each fruit (corky seed ball) can produce two or more plants.  We favored the "petite" stage seen here.

Celery

Celery seed is small and a slow finicky germinator which requires some care at it's early stages.  Seed is available at low cost.  Even at 50 days, it would probably be better to figure 10 additional days for harvest in line with the other micro-greens here.  Celery tolerates lower night temperatures well but was probably delayed by those temperatures.  On the other hand, it has a refreshing strong celery flavor and is complementary to many kinds of dishes.  I was rated highly as a micro-green.

Chervil

Chervil produces an attractive "petite" green, developing a pleasant mild anise flavor with some complexity at latter stages.  The carrot-like leaves are more delicate in flavor and of a finer quality than parsley.  Possible garnish for fish, young steamed vegetables.  Well liked by most evaluators.  40 day maturity.

 

Orach

Purple and green orach produce large leaves on tall seedlings;  tender baby greens of substance.  Mild spinach flavor.  Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed has collected, maintained and developed new strains of Orach in an exciting color range.  Orach is probably best in this stage.

 

 

 

Clayona

Clayona also known as miner's lettuce was pleasant and mild, some say buttery texture, the many basal leaves of the "baby" stage plants are very novel and attractive in their tiny bunches.   Most people preferred over "baby" lettuce.  Definitely worth growing as a salad, highly rated.  50 days.

Cilantro

Cilantro is mild and has a pleasant coriander flavor (the seed is coriander spice),  described as parsley-like with citrus overtones.  It's a very attractive and very usable "petite" green.  Delfino Coriander was more pleasing in flavor;  Santo Coriander was somewhat astringent even though grown under similar conditions.  Delfino would be preferred over parsley as a garnish by many tasters.

Garland Chrysanthemum

Garland Chrysanthemum cv: Tiger Ear,  from Evergreen Seeds produces quite a bit of biomass from a few seeds and in a short time.  We found the microgreens crisp and juicy, mild and pleasant;  toward later "baby" stages there is an interesting hint of mum leaf or aromatic field daisy which adds considerably to interest.  There are many kinds of edible chrysanthemum that are popular in Eastern Asia, this is a fine one.  We prefer this stage for the succulent tasty leaves over harvesting from more mature plants.

Fennel

Fennel had a cooling delicate anise like flavor, attractive cut leaves.  A good complement to fruit salads, yogurt sauces, poached fish, cheeses; very nice garnish and flavor as a "baby" green.  We used the Italian or Florence Fennel for producing "greens" but there are other kinds available including a bronze foliage type.  You either love it or hate it as demonstrated by taste tests.  I find that a little really brightens a salad.

Parsley

Parsley is always considered a fine garnish and flavoring ingredient.  As a microgreen, the parsley flavor is more mild.  Gigante and plain leaved varieties were trialed- Gigante had excellent, quick germination which does not always happen with parsley;  curled kinds would probably produce attractive microgreens.  Favored in trial perhaps due to familiarity.

Dark Opal Basil

The color is the main attribute to Dark Opal Basil, slow growing, requires warmth.  A fine micro-green addition but not all that tasty.  Most evaluators would opt out.

Alliums

Onion, chives, garlic chives and leek are all similar in requirements and provide nice microgreens which are rich in flavor and quite different from one another.  We evaluated a number of edible, common alliums, all have potential use at young stages.  They need time to develop and can be sown quite heavily.  50 days.

Chicory

As a "baby" green, Chicory is tender with a pleasant flavor some describe as flowery but with a slightly bitter aftertaste that is always appreciated in salads with a vinaigrette dressing.  Leaf chicory or endives are similar in flavor and growth as microgreens.

Lemon Basil

lemb1.jpg
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Lemon Basil like all basils require warmth for good germination.  Very fine lemon flavor, ideal garnish for many items as well as salad.  Evaluators find it outstanding at the "petite: stage and enjoyed the refreshing flavor.

Tatsoi

Tatsoi had attractive, glossy round leaves of substance.  The flavor was mustard like but very mild.  A nice quick growing crop.

Vitamin Greens / Mustards

Vitamin greens were mild and pleasant.  This is a mizuna-type mustard.  Johnny's Seeds is a good source for seeds for Vitamin Greens as well as other micro-greens and "baby" greens since they have done extensive work to commercialize this salad niche. 

Ruby Streak is another mustard introduction from Evergreen Seeds.  Attractive, quick growing "greens", can tolerate lower temperatures. Hot with a slight bitterness.  Visually, a nice garnish.

Orient Golden Frill is an introduction from Evergreen Seeds into the "petite" green arena.  Very pretty, hot mustard flavor.  Just like the condiment at a Nathan's stand.  Evoked some discussion of potential uses on the plate.

Pak Choi

Rapid growth, this open pollinated tall white stem pak choi (a low cost seed) was an easy bolter under short days and the cold, crowded growth conditions which may actually add to it's desirability.  It had a very mild flavor, no mustard heat and had a pleasant crispness especially as the bolting stem develops as a "baby" green.

Purple Kohlrabi

Large leaves, light purple stems and leaf petioles, common purple kohlrabi had a mild raw broccoli flavor, so does broccoli (just use the lower cost non hybrids).

Kale

Red Russian Kale was a particularly nice "green" with frilled leaves and purple overtones.  White Russian is a green counterpart.

Other "greens" that were grown as part of this investigation but not photographed were: carrot greens (received high marks for flavor at "petite" stage), amaranth, corn salad, various lettuces, turnip greens, broccoli raab, broccoli, red cabbage, purple mustard, flaxseed, arugula, and radish.
 
This was a preliminary grow out of many kinds of seeds.  More work is required to develop techniques of economical production and marketing of these greens under traditional and organic systems.  It does seem to be possible for home gardeners to grow these in simple soil flats or even ground culture under protective cloche or cold frame to experience these gourmet greens early in the season.  I would like to thank Paul Anderson, Eva Skolak and students in my Botany Class and continuing education "Sprouts and Microgreens Course" for assistance with the evaluation.

Water Spinach

The initial narrow leaves of Ipomea aquatica widen as the plant matures and gets ready to throw out its runners.

The photos show the distinctive pointed leaves and light green color of the water morning glory or water spinach. I first came across the seeds in Iowa of all places, on a seed rack of seeds from Thailand. The yellow cayenne from that same seed rack is still growing in my garden, the water spinach- struggled that first year and I figured it was just not the right environment for it.

This past summer I planted seeds again and like before, they germinated and slowly grew and then at about a foot tall they didn't do anything- at least I didn't think they were doing much. All of a sudden, in early August I noticed the distinctive leaves in my lawn and traced the vines 10 feet or so back to that little bush and then I followed another vine into my squash patch and another into the tomatoes. My gosh, I thought to myself, it's taken over. Sure enough, in the 90 degree days and the slow and steady drip of my t-tape, the water spinach was rooting at each node and then sending new branches in all directions. It was remarkable growth which had to be several inches a day.

I began to pick bunches of the leafy, hollow stems to chop up into half inch pieces and then stir fry with garlic and olive oil, salt and pepper. What an excellent vegetable. Much better than spinach. Very pleasant, tender and without any trace of the oxalic acid taste that makes spinach low on the best veggies list of most folks. The more I tossed it into my frying pan, the more I appreciated it's mild flavor that depends on seasonings for character. No wonder it's the most popular "green" in southeast Asia.

I remember the days you could get the seeds mail order (just a few years ago, actually) before it was illegal to buy the seeds and plant them. 

Because it has the potential to become an invasive plant in some areas of Florida and the Gulf Coast, it is a restrictive import that now requires a permit from USDA in order to obtain the seeds.  Silly, like so much of the red tape that controls the free exchange of seed.  Water Spinach has been a listed invasive of gulf coast states for many years yet continues to be grown from cuttings there by families who have immigrated from tropical Asian countries.  Yes, it is that good.  Recent legislation against the purchase of seed will not diminish the threat to the aquatic habitat but a good educational outreach about where not to grow it could help.

Kind of like planting Kudzu Vine which was actually encouraged by the USDA for years as an erosion preventative and now is targeted for eradication (probably not likely).  Just seed on the bare slopes left by road construction.  Kudzu followed the growth of the interstate system through the southern states and continues to take over vast acreage in the South and is now overwintering as far north as Long Island.  At least Water Spinach is delicious and we can eat it back into submission.

Saving Lettuce Seed

Originally posted on liseed.org November 2007

Lettuce (Lactuca sativa)

Family: Asteraceae (Sunflower family)
Genus: Lactuca

Half Hardy Annual. Sow in the spring, tolerates light frost, transplants well. Bolts first year, produces an easy seed crop. I don''t find a lot of crossing but I'm sure it can.

We always grow a few types of lettuce. I've grown different varieties side by side in hopes that some would just cross but they never do.

Lettuce is in a group of plants called composites, like daisies, sunflowers, zinnias, dandelions and a score of other plants. They produce a flower which technically is actually better called a "head" since it consists of many flowers or florets. Some of those florets can be ray flowers, they are arranged in a concentric way around the outside of the head as a single circle of petals each attached to the ovary or fruit which ripens to contain a single seed. Ray flowers may extend inward from their outer ring to a series of rings which gives the flower head a distinctive doubling effect (double marigolds, for example). Inside there may be disc flowers, often dozens crammed together making up the central part of the head. These little florets don't have the conventional showy petal attached like the ray flowers do but they are attached, each to an ovary which can also mature into a single seeded fruit called an achene. Unless you eat sunflower seeds you probably won't notice that seed of a composite like lettuce is actually contained in a shell-like fruit.

Lettuce flower heads are more like a dandelion than a sunflower and consist of a multitude of densely packed ray florets which open at the same time. As the florets open, the central stigma pushes through a crown of stamens and automatically is pollinated. Therefore, lettuce tends to be self pollinating. In fact, hand crossing lettuces is as tedious as hand crossing peas. There are some very effective insect pollinators that can cross lettuces, I am told. Therefore, you will want to separate varieties by a few meters if you are growing seed crops.

Asparagus Lettuce

Asparagus Lettuce

I don't get involved in the stock market but I hear that there are a lot of people out there on Wall Street who are employed to make predictions that this one or that is ready to make great profits for you. Here goes, my prediction is Asparagus Lettuce. I really like the stuff. I never ordered the seed for it from Burpee when they marketed it as Celtuce or Cel-tuce as in "celery lettuce" back in the 1950's, but I've been looking at Asian varieties of vegetables recently and I find that Chinese lettuces are practically all asparagus lettuces. There are many varieties adapted to growing the crop in different seasons. Unlike the direction of lettuce breeding in Europe and America, China bred for a thick, tender stalk. An asparagus lettuce can produce a really massive stalk reaching up to a pound or more. I'm still working on the best techniques of growing this kind of lettuce, but I'm really impressed by it's potential for the restaurant trade. It produces a huge leafy upright bush that likes room to grow. The stem elongates quickly but not to bolt as it continues to produce tender nice salad leaves which you can harvest on an ongoing basis. To harvest the stalk you cut the plant, remove the lower leaves and then lightly scrape the outer epidermis from the stalk which will remove any bitterness. The stalk is sweet, crunchy and tender and the little mass of leaves at the top is very nice on a platter. I've cut the asparagus lettuce small to serve guests, maybe 3 or 4 to the plate with a drizzle of oil and vinegar and boy, do they rave about it. The Chinese lightly stir-fry the stalks in sesame oil until wilted but still crunchy which gives them the more appropriate name, asparagus lettuce.
 

Vanguard 75

Vanguard 75

Vanguard 75, a heading lettuce from USDA-Salinas breeders. Vanguard has been abandoned by the seed industry and is no longer in commerce. Salinas breeders wondered why since it has some very nice qualities for the organic grower. So do we. We agreed to evaluate this lettuce for NOFA-NY as part of the Public Seed Initiative. and found that it has some very nice qualities. It literally roasted in the unusually hot and dry conditions we had this summer, in addition it is growing in our "sand lot", an area where our soils are poor. While it needed drip tape to perform at it's max, it was an easy header, shaping up early and just getting better as the season progressed.

Tom Thumb

Tom Thumb

Each lettuce flower head stays open only a day and it will produce seeds like a tiny dandelion with an attached pappus which will allow it to parachute away on the wind. Collecting seed can be an adventure because the lettuce stalk produces many flower heads over a period of many days. When you see the flower heads mature into seed you can go around collecting the seed by bending the stalks into a large paper bag and shaking. Plan to do this daily ritual for a while if you want.

If we aren't worried about losing part of the seed crop (we have enough plants going to seed and it isn't a rare variety), we'll wait for a few days when we see seed formation is going well and then pull the plants out of the ground, loosely slip the upper stalks into a bag and lay the plant in a protected area (the garage or an empty greenhouse) until the seeds mature, additional flowers will continue to go to seed while bagged. Separating the seed from the chaff (fluffy pappus) is done by screening when the flowers are very dry (we leave the flowers in their bags for several weeks) and lose some of their stickiness which can hinder the production of clean seed.

Lettuce in flower

Lettuce in flower

Lettuce in seed.

Lettuce in seed.

 

 

Breeding A New Lettuce

Lettuce:  Red Grenoble x Salinas F2

The OSP made a small number of seeds of this interesting second generation lettuce cross from USDA-Salinas to a number of organic farmers several years ago.  Last year we multiplied the lettuce seed on our farm (a simple job) and this year we're selecting for vigor, taste, texture and bolt resistance.  You can see some of the diversity in the plants .  Apparently, the seed was been sitting around in Salinas, California for a while without generating much interest since this is clearly not a lettuce for distance shipping. It is; however, resistant to leaf miners and combines the flavor of the old French heirloom with the texture and heat tolerance of Salinas.  And for that reason, the folks at Salinas thought that it might be of interest to the organic farming community and passed it on to OSP and through the partnership, to us.

 These are the four primary phenotypes that appeared in the F3 of the Salinas cross.  Fine flavored and with a definite bolt resistant population, we are enjoying this loose-head lettuce which has enough of a heavy texture to please my finnicky niece.

We always grow a few types of lettuce. I've grown different varieties side by side in hopes that some would just cross but they never do.  So how is it that the professional breeders develop new lettuce varieties.

Lettuce is in a group of plants called composites, like daisies, sunflowers, zinnias, dandelions and scores of other plants. They produce a flower which technically is actually better called a "head" since it consists of many flowers or florets. Some of those florets can be ray flowers, they are arranged in a concentric way around the outside of the head as a single circle of petals each attached to the ovary or fruit which ripens to contain a single seed. Ray flowers may extend inward from their outer ring to a series of rings which gives the flower head a distinctive doubling effect (double marigolds, for example). Inside there may be disc flowers, often dozens crammed together making up the central part of the head. These little florets don't have the conventional showy petal attached like the ray flowers do but they are attached, each to an ovary which can also mature into a single seeded fruit called an achene. Unless you eat sunflower seeds you probably won't notice that seed of a composite like lettuce is actually contained in a shell-like fruit.

Lettuce flower heads are more like a dandelion than a sunflower and consist of a multitude of densely packed ray florets which open at the same time. As the florets open, the central stigma pushes through a crown of stamens and automatically is pollinated. Therefore, lettuce tends to be self pollinating. In fact, hand crossing lettuces is as tedious as hand crossing peas. There are some very effective insect pollinators that can cross lettuces, I am told. Therefore, you will want to separate varieties by a few meters if you are growing seed crops and want to maintain the purity of a variety.


How does one hybridize two lettuces to combine the characteristics and have a new pool of traits to select from?

That was a question that I asked George Moriarty of Cornell who has worked with lettuces.  He explained that what he does is find an unopened flower bud on the lettuce that will be the female parent.  This bud has to be within a day of opening.  Remember that the bud opens into a head of many small flowers and that the stigma of each tiny flower pushes through the stamens above which provide the pollen.  Cut off the top half of the flower bud (which removes the male stamens). Then find a fresh, open flower from your selected male parent.  Place a drop of water on the remaining exposed base of the female flower head and then swab the male into the water to release the pollen into the film of water.  Tag the blossom.  This special blossom with all your hand labor is the one that you will watch ripen and produce seed.  Each of the dozen or so florets on the head will produce a seed. 

The seed is now F1 hybrid.  Actually, there is a good possibility that some stray pollen contamination was introduced and so not every seed in that head will be a hybrid.  George says though, that the hybrid vigor of the F1's will be apparent when the seed germinates and that you should select those to grow out.