Sunday, January 10, 2010

Prickly Lettuce

What’s still green: Arborvitae, juniper and other evergreens, Apache plume, some rose stems, cholla, prickly pear, yuccas, Japanese honeysuckle, vinca, beardtongues, coral bells, sea pink; snow still covers grape hyacinth, pink and yellow evening primroses, purple aster, cheat grass, bases of needle and June grasses.

What’s grey, blue-grey or grey-green: Piñon, pinks, snow-in-summer, saltbush, winterfat.

What’s yellow: Weeping willow branches.

What’s blooming inside: Bougainvillea and aptenia; rochea and Christmas cactus leaves tinged with red.

Animal sightings: Birds nesting in my porch ceiling.

Weather: Morning temperatures ranged between 14 and 24, until falling to 8 again this weekend; last snow 12/30/09

Weekly update: Seed and nursery catalogs are still arriving, and with them the hopes of summer. As dreams should be, not all are practical. Every now and then I indulge in fantasies of the impossible for northern New Mexico, like a fern garden under my porch.

It’s an occupational hazard with gardeners. Even Linnaeus had his chimera, a garden laid out like a clock, with plants in each section that opened at that hour. He considered goat’s beard for 4 am, sow thistles, dandelions and bindweed for 5 am, hawkweeds for 6 am, and common lettuce for 7 am.

When I look at that list, I’m struck by the paucity of ornamental plants available in 1751. Man’s relationship with plants had gone through few phases then, and all had been related to getting enough to eat. The importations of brilliant colored, large flowers that stay open all day, every day of the summer was yet to come.

Humankind had begun by gathering seeds to eat, and somehow making the great discoveries of protecting desirable plants and saving seeds. There’s no such thing as garden lettuce, Lactuca sativa, found in the wild. Geneticists have found it nearly identical with the prickly lettuce that Eviatar Nevo’s team believes evolved in eastern Turkey and Armenia in response to "high abiotic and biotic stresses" in that region.

Nothing about Lactuca serriola would lead you to protect or eat it. The leaves and stems are thorny, the leaves are bitter, the stem is filled with a milky sap that stains the hands, and the small washed out yellow flowers are dwarfed by their tall stalks. The composites not only stay open only a few hours, but droop. It’s only now that the stalks have stiffened that they stand completely upright.

We know Egyptians began domesticating the plant from tomb paintings dating back 4500 years. Louis Keimer has shown the evolution of the art work, and possibly the plant in that art. By the time of Senusret I (1971-1926 bc), it was pictured with Min, the god of fertility, which leads some to believe it was used as an aphrodisiac. Others are more prosaic, arguing it was grown for the seed oil, much as K. Lindqvist found primitive sativa plants being used in the 1950's.

Herodotus repeats a story about the Persians, that in its Egyptian version, suggests lettuce had moved to their tables by the mid-500's bc. Edward Sturtevant found references to it by Hippocrates (430 bc) and Aristotle (356 bc). Soon after the death of Christ, Pliny the Elder described it as a soporific that controls the appetites, aids digestion and purges the stomach. It’s thought that people then were selecting plants that had higher amounts of lactucarium, a chemical that was still in the United States Pharmacopoeia in 1898 as a sedative.

The Spanish were growing lettuce by the time Columbus packed seeds in 1493 along with 1,200 settlers, horses, cattle, sheep, and wheat onto 17 ships to found a colony on Hispañola. When Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá traveled with Juan de Oñate to the Española valley in 1598, he suggested that "after we have dealt with them," Santa Domingo will "harvest the red wheat and garden stuff, such as lettuce and cabbage." By 1601, one of the colonists wrote they indeed were irrigating lettuce from the Chama river where they had taken land from the San Juan. In 1931, Isleta was still using it like the Romans for stomach aches.

The next phase of the European relationship with plants began when Spanish ships returned with the potatoes, tomatoes, and corn that revolutionized peasant diets. They joined the sugar, coffee and tea coming from the east that displaced the first spices, the mace that flavors Swedish meatballs and the cloves used with baked ham. Both were combined with the new pumpkins.

Lettuce remained a small part of the diet, until selective breeding programs increased the edibility of the leaves. Atlee Burpee introduced the firm headed ice burg lettuce in 1894, that could be shipped by train to the tables of New York society in winter. From there it spread into the American diet as a food and not a medicine.

Ohio State says its prickly lettuce ancestor was recorded in this country around 1860, and by 1915, Elmer Wooten and Paul Standley say it had "become a troublesome weed in some of the river valleys of New Mexico," especially around Farmington, Ruidoso and the Mesilla valley.

The phase of indulging oneself with ornamental plants only came with improved standards of living and tropical plants in the nineteen century. Linnaeus may never have created his horologium florae, but his vision was revived by gardeners who created carpet beds that looked like clock faces with one flower for the background, and another for the numbers. Some even buried clock works so the hour and minute hands could turn over the flowers.

Now, I suppose, one could make such a carpet bed with various shades of lettuce advertised in the newly arrived catalogs. Then, one could leave one stalk of prickly lettuce in the center to act as the style of an edible sundial. The dead prickly lettuce stalk that hid in the rugosa rose now casts its shadow every day.

Notes:Deagan, Kathleen A. and José María Cruxent. Columbus's Outpost among the Taínos: Spain and America at La Isabela, 1493-1498, 2002, draws on the document collection published by Juan Gil and Consuelo Varela, In Temas Columbinas, 1984.

Friere-Marreco Barbara. In William Wilfred Robbins, John Peabody Harrington, and Barbara Friere-Marreco, Ethnobotany of the Tewa Indians, 1916.

Harlan, Jack R. "Lettuce and the Sycomore: Sex and Romance in Ancient Egypt," Economic Botany 40:4-15:1986; Mark Andrews, "The White Chapel of Senusret I," includes a reproduction of the most famous of the Egyptian paintings of lettuce and Min.

Herodotus. The Persian Wars, translated by: George Rawlinson 1942, and edited by: Bruce J. Butterfield.

Jones, Volney H. The Ethnobotany of the Isleta Indians, 1931, cited by Dan Moerman, Native American Ethnobotany, 1998.

Keimer, L. Die Gartenpflanzen im Alten Ägypten, 1924, drawings reproduced in "Lettuce (Asteraceae; Lactuca spp.)" by A. Lebeda, E. J. Ryder, R. Grube, I. Doleñalová, and E. Krístková in Ram J. Singh, Genetic Resources, Chromosome Engineering, and Crop Improvement: Vegetable Crops, volume 3, 2006.

Lindqvist, K. Studies in Wild and Cultivated Lettuce, 1960, dates it to 4500.

Linnaeus. Philosophia Botanica, 1751; list of his plants taken from Wikipedia entry on "Linnaeus’ Flower Clock."

Nevo, Eviatar Nevo, Richard Michelmore, null Hanhui Kuang, Herman J. Van Eck, Delphme Sicard "Evolution and Genetic Population Structure of Prickly Lettuce (Lactuca serriola) and Its RGC2," Genetics 178:1547-1558:2008.

Ohio State University, "Prickly Lettuce" in its on-line Weed Guide.

Pliny the Elder. Natural History: A Selection, translated by John F. Healy, 1991.

Sturtevant, Edward Lewis. Sturtevant’s Edible Plants of the World, edited by U. P. Hedrick, 1919, reprinted by Dover Publications, 1972.

Villagrá, Gaspar Pérez de. Historia de la Nueva México, 1610, translated and edited by Miguel Encinias, Alfred Rodrígue and Joseph P. Sánchez, 1992.

Wooten, Elmer Otis and Paul Carpenter Standley. Flora of New Mexico, 1915, as scariola integrata.

Photograph: Prickly Lettuce, 3 January 2010.

No comments: