The amazing diversity of leafy greens can’t be beat, whether used in salads, side dishes, soups, or stews. Salad greens include lettuce, spinach, endive, escarole, and radicchio. Popular cooking greens include Swiss chard, kale, collards, mustard greens, beet greens, and turnip greens. Many greens are good either raw or cooked.
The history of lettuce (Lactuca sativa) dates back at least 4,000 years to the Nile valley. There are four basic types of lettuce: crisphead, romaine, butterhead, and looseleaf. Crisphead lettuce forms a dense head. By far the most popular crisphead is iceberg, named as such because it was packed in ice for shipping. Iceberg so dominates the crisphead group that the names are often used interchangeably. Iceberg became very popular because of its long shelf life and because it transports well.
For home gardeners, the looseleafs, which as the name implies do not form compact heads, are the easiest to grow and quickest to harvest. Looseleaf lettuces come in many shapes, textures, and colors. ‘Black Seeded Simpson’, ‘Red Oak Leaf’, and ‘Salad Bowl’ are popular garden varieties.
Romaine (Lactuca sativa, var. longifolia), also called cos, forms upright, elongated heads with sturdy leaves. The term “cos” comes from the Greek island of Kos (Cos) in the Aegean Sea, where the variety was brought from North Africa. Romaine has a sweet flavour and good keeping qualities and is the second most popular lettuce next to iceberg. ‘Jericho’ is a traditional green romaine, while ‘Ruben’s Red Romaine’ is a beautiful burgundy red.
Butterhead, also called Bibb or Boston lettuce after two early varieties, forms small loose heads. Leaves have a buttery flavour and texture. Popular varieties include ‘Four Seasons’ and ‘Buttercrunch’.
Spinach (Spinacia oleracea) was first cultivated in Persia around the fourth century. Spinach may be either smooth‐leaved or crinkle‐leaved (also called savoy). There is little difference in flavour between the two. Crinkle‐leaved spinach is harder to clean when grown in the garden ‐ not a problem if bought prewashed and packaged at the supermarket. Spinach can be eaten in salads or cooked. Common garden varieties include ‘Bloomsdale’ and ‘Melody’.
Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris, subsp. cicla), the oldest member of the beet family, is grown for its large ruffled leaves. Varieties include ‘Ruby Chard’ with bright red stems and aptly‐named ‘Bright Lights’ with a colourful mixture of red, orange, yellow, pink, and white stems. Swiss chard is similar to spinach and is great steamed, stir‐fried, or in a salad. Its stems resemble celery and can be used as a celery substitute.
Kale and Collards
Kale (Brassica oleracea var. acephela is a tasty and nutritious vegetable which is good in salads, soups, or stews. Its sturdy leaves may be frilly or curly, and may be dark green, blue‐green, reddish, or purple. Flowering kale resembles large, showy flowers and is often used as a fall ornamental or to decorate salad bars. Kale is extremely cold‐hardy.
Collards, a type of kale, are a staple in the American South. Their thick, dark green leaves are similar to a flat cabbage. Stems are removed, and the leaves are cooked thoroughly to soften, as with cabbage.
Mustard greens (Brassica juncea) are grown for their spicy, peppery taste. Mustard leaves may be either flat or curly, and range from light green to purple. Pak Choi is an Asian variety of mustard.
The chicories evolved from wild chicory, a common blue wildflower. Endive or curly endive is frilly, loose‐headed chicory. Outer leaves may be bitter, while inner leaves are milder. Witloof, which means “white leaf” is a white‐headed chicory, the result of a labor‐intensive growing method in a dark cellar. (To confuse matters, witloof is known as Belgian endive in the US, endive in France, and chicory in Britain!) Radicchio, a red chicory that looks like a small lettuce, is grown in a similar manner to witloof. A bitter green, it is used in salads. Escarole, sometimes called broadleaf endive, has a mild flavour and wavy leaves that are green in the outer edges of the head, and white at the heart. Both radicchio and escarole are used in Italian cooking.
Other Leafy Greens
Other greens include peppery arugula (or rocket), the spicy cresses, mache or corn salad, dandelion greens, and wild greens such as the sorrels. Beet and turnip greens are also popular as cooked greens.
Mesclun ‐ from a French word meaning “mixture” ‐ is a combination of lettuces, cultivated greens, and wild greens. Mesclun blends different colours and textures, and a mix of mild, spicy, and bitter flavours.
The list of leafy greens is almost limitless. Experiment by adding new greens to your salad, or cooking up an alternative to the familiar spinach. You’ll be glad you did!