About 8 years ago, I observed a couple of hybrid lettuce plants. They were naturally-occurring crosses between domestic lettuce and the wild prickly lettuce that is a prolific weed in my garden.
I was thrilled! The wild lettuce is the most locally-adapted landrace that I could every hope to find. It grows without weeding, or irrigation. It thrives here. It defied every attempt to eradicate it by my family and community for the past 160 years. It’s feral in the ecosystem. The cross has the potential of being awesome.
So I encouraged it to grow, and go weedy. I culled spiny plants, or those that were bitter. Some years I planted it intentionally. Some years it self-perpetuated. I love it when my breeding projects continue, even when I’m scattered, sick, old, tired, away.
Here’s some photos of what the original F1 hybrids looked like.
The past few years, I have been selecting for winter hardiness. Here’s what the plants look like that are currently growing in my unheated greenhouse. They are self-sown, from the plants that were winter hardy in the greenhouse last winter. I also select for winter hardiness in the open field, and for quick early growth. One thing I noticed, is that those that survive winter best hug the ground.
Im find all of this very interesting crossing domestic back into wild varieties seems like it would be so successful. In my tiny personal garden one of my goals is to find varieties that self seed and establish in the space. I have a few varieties of lettuce that have started self seeding. Im unsure of the varieties but all are leaf and not head. I also have wild lettuce which I keep for pain medicine. I hope they cross, just through my weed management strategy of removing the 3 most prolific-least edible plants for an hour each day would eventually select out the spiny tough lettuces. I would be very happy to eventually trade seeds.
Not sure I’d say we’re working on a lettuce landrace but we do save our own seeds of a few varieties. Even though they often flower together we’ve never noticed a cross but given the number of seeds a lettuce plant produces and the low crossing rate this isn’t surprising. I used to eliminate all the wild lettuce but stopped after doing the endophyte course and now, on reading your story @Joseph_Lofthouse, I intend encouraging it. With any luck a cross or two will turn up.
I keep going back and forth and whether I want to work with lettuce, precisely because of those prickly wild lettuces that grow everywhere as weeds here. On the one hand, clearly lettuce can do well here with zero irrigation as a self-sowing annual that’s hardy through the winter, which is awesome. On the third hand, I don’t want thorns and terrible bitterness in my landrace.
I have saved seeds from my Black-Seeded Simpson lettuce that did great unirrigated, and I culled all the prickly wild lettuces out of my yard before it flowered, but my neighobors didn’t, and several of them flowered just ten feet away from my lettuce bed. On the other hand, the wild ones flowered several weeks later than mine did. So maybe . . .?
I don’t knowwwwww . . .
I’m kind of favoring just finding another species that works as well as lettuce for me, so I don’t have to worry about thorns and bitterness crossing.
Regarding domesticated x wild lettuce crosses, I have Willowleaf Lettuce (Lactuca saligna) growing wild in my garden — in addition to prickly lettuce. Willowleaf lettuce is much less prickly and bitter that Prickly lettuce. It might make a better candidate for an interspecies cross, although this cross may be less likely since it is not as closely related to domesticated lettuce as Prickly lettuce is.
Interesting! I have a couple wild lettuce that are mild and non prickly too. I think they are Lactuca Virosa. I’m very curious to see if they will become as abundant as the common prickly ones. I must admit to even liking the prickly ones I eat them very young and they’re quite ok but the lactuca virosa are much tastier so I’m hoping my couple plants will become semi feral too!
I saved seeds from two kinds of wild plants that I think are: prickly lettuce (L serriola) and tall blue lettuce (L biennis). The latter of the two is just incredibly bitter. I am attracted to bitter food but the latex of the tall blue shook me. I’d like to plant a second lettuce patch mixing them in with my normal lettuce grex, but I guess it’s low priority.
All of the prickly lettuces I’ve tasted (mind you, I’ve only tried a few times) were insanely, intensely, incredibly bitter. This may be because they were in full sun, in high temperatures, with no water. But I’m disinclined to give them another try just because they might be less bitter if grown in the shade. Seriously, those things are nasty.
Granted, I keep hearing people say dandelions are delicious when grown in the shade, and I find them to be nasty, nasty, nasty as well. So it’s entirely possible the high heat and drought of my climate make those plants much bitterer than they may be elsewhere.
@UnicornEmily Whenever I cook a mess of greens, as Carol Deppe would say, I add, in small amounts to be sure, whatever wild leaves are available: prickly lettuce, dandelion, plantain etc. You don’t really notice the bitterness when prepared this way.
There’s a few types of wild lettuces that grow in North FL. One I found growing prolifically in a concrete ditch beside a major highway. It is not as prickly and I saved seeds and planted them this year. They sprouted amazingly well and also hug the ground. We just had the worst freeze I’ve ever remembered and they were not bothered at all when everything else was toast. I prefer the taste of wild lettuces to cultivated lettuce and this one is bitter but also sweet so I am going to keep growing it. I read that the alkaloids in lettuce sap that makes it bitter has analgesic and calming effects and this one produces abundant sap during flower stage.
Another variety grows wild in the hard clay soil and dense grass on our property and is more like the prickly lettuce. I enjoy eating it and so do the deer but it is not as sweet to me.
I also grow a mix of lettuces for my mom who prefers them but I don’t find them as tasty as the wild ones.
That makes sense, using bitter foraged greens to pad out a mess of greens, so you get more nutrition and don’t have to taste them. (Grin.) I’ve tried that a few times, and I noticed . . . so maybe I was doing it wrong!
This is an absolutely wonderful genetic work that I knew needed to be done, and I am extremely glad to see that someone out there is actually doing it. I would be happy to collaborate in such an adventure.
Oh. Hmm. Good point. If I taste the leaves long before letting them flower, which I really ought to be doing with lettuce anyway, that will give me a good idea as to whether I want them in my landrace.
Thorns will also be a dead obvious sign that they’d crossed.
My main concern is that prickly wild lettuce is incredibly hard to rid of, once it grows in a spot for me. It keeps growing back. No matter what I do. Even when I try to overfertilize them to death by pouring straight urine on them. Even when I dig them out. Even when they’re little tiny plants when I pull them out. Those taproots are insane.
But now that I think about it, that would be a highly desirable trait in a cut-and-come again lettuce population. So maybe I shouldn’t completely dismiss lettuce as a crop just because it might cross with those horrible weeds.
Hmm. It occurs to me that one thing I could do is always plant my lettuce outside of my usual garden beds. In places where prickly lettuce keeps popping up as weeds anyway. That way, if a prickly lettuce cross shows up, it won’t be showing up in a garden bed. If I could train sweet domesticated lettuce to spread itself as an invasive weed through my yard, I . . . would not object to that in the least!
I had big plans about letting lettuce go to seed and building a mixed seedbank in my soil, but… none of it got past barely opening flowers before the freeze. I had been picking everything that started to bolt, to eat, and leaving the plants that didn’t bolt. I gave the remaining non-bolting ones a month and a half, which wasn’t enough for them to finally decide to send up seed stalks, put out flowers, and then come anywhere near ripe seed. So this year I guess I’m leaving every plant, even the early flowering ones.
They were a Moroccan green lettuce and a four season lettuce my neighbor gave me years ago.
The Moroccan one i added to the garden to get drought résistant plants in. It wasn’t that droughtresistant nor did it produce viable seed. But somehow it popped up the following year. I saved seeds of those selfseeders which were better, but still not the amount of good black seeds i am used to.
The four season lettuce my neighbor gave me is a redish curly survivor. It pops up here, there and everywhere.
Following year i put the descendents of the Moroccan selfseeder at a dryer spot, and the four season lettuce grew there too. I just let them be.The cross on the photo is the result the year after. They just grew there somehow. Could have fallen off both motherplants.
I don’t get them like that anymore, like an obvious mix.
They’re back to the Moroccan green type.
I’m going to interplant all my lettuces with the four season one next year. See if it was just luck or if it’s more promiscuous than others. I’ve got loads of that one if anyone is interested.