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Sedative salad: what you didn’t know about lettuce

Crisp and tender leaves of salad crops are usually green but may also be red or bronzy, curly or flat, whole or lobed vary in shape and flavor, texture, and size. You put it in sandwiches and your salads every day. Yes, you’re right. It is lettuce. Probably the most popular of salad crops with hundreds upon hundreds of cultivars. Different lettuce varieties are so many that we can eat a different one every day during the year.

Wild ancestor
Cultivated lettuce is developed from the wild lettuce Lactuca serriola, also called prickly lettuce. This plant is found wild in clearings, rocky slopes, and waste places from Asia and North Africa to northern Europe. It is an annual plant that stems reaching 79 Inches (2 m) in height, and leaves are often spiny. The wild lettuce species are horribly bitter. Bitterness is associated with the production of milky juice. Selection of less bitter forms would have been one of the first actions of the early cultivators of the salad.

Love grass and opium 
Lettuce has been cultivated first by ancient Egyptians in around 4500 BC. Wall paintings in some Egyptian tombs have evidenced that fact. Ancient Egyptians who knew this plant as aphrodisiac associated lettuce with the Egyptian god Min – the dark-skinned god of fertility. Archaeobotanical evidence in Greek is confirmed that the seeds deposited in a sanctuary of Hera on Samos were retrieved from a 7th-century BC. The bitter latex was often used as a substitute for opium or laudanum to its soporific properties.

Lettuce bed
In mythology, Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty, is said to have laid Adonis, the ever-youthful vegetation god and life-death-rebirth deity, a lettuce bed, leading to the vegetable’s association with food for the dead man (or mortal food). The Festival of Adonis was celebrated in Athena in mid-summer when fennel and lettuce were harvested. These plants would wither very quickly, and the women would mourn their decline like the death of the youthful Adonis.

Fancy leaf
Modern breeding has concentrated on resistance to disease in the common types and on more fancy leaf shapes and colors. There are hundreds of types of lettuce divided into six cultivar groups based on leaf formation. The most popular types include Looseleaf lettuce, Cos (romaine lettuce), and Crisphead lettuce (‘iceberg’ type). The Crisphead or Iceberg lettuce is more popular in America and was developed to survive transport from California to the markets in the east. Cos lettuces are much grown in the eastern Mediterranean. In China, the Celtuce or stem-lettuce, a variety with swollen crisp, fleshy stalks, is widely grown to sliced or stir-fried. Less well-known are butterhead and summer crisp. Leaves are variously toothed or crisped along the margins. Lettuce is today the most important of all salad crops and occurs worldwide, but the major consumers are North America and Europe.

Healthy and tasty
Lettuce is low in calories. Most varieties are rich in folic acid, although the vitamin and mineral content can differ from one variety to another. Lettuce is said to stimulate the appetite and have analgesic and sedative properties: it is recommended for insomnia, nervousness and as a cough remedy. In the Middle Age, monks were advised to eat lettuce to purge the body.

Lettuce is almost invariably used fresh. Leaves are added to green salads and mixed salads or added to sandwiches. Lettuce is very popular as a garnish, served with dishes as diverse as roast meat. Lettuce may also be braised, stuffed, pureed, or cooked with milk or cream. Lettuce leaves are added to green salads and mixed salads, of which there are countless variations all over the world. Caesar, Greek, Nicoise, and Waldorf salads are famous examples, to name a few.

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