Photos courtesy of the National Garden Bureau
Their names are sometimes unfamiliar and their tastes exotic. Leafy greens are popular everywhere from gourmet restaurants, farmers' markets, and supermarket produce sections to backyard gardens. The extensive variety of greens available today offers creamy or crisp textures, sweet or pungent flavors, and colors in beautiful shades of green and red.
In some mild climates, greens can be grown year-round for a harvest that lasts for months. Versatile and fast growing, greens can be harvested at almost any stage of growth and eaten raw or cooked. On the dinner table, greens are filled with flavor and nutrition for a culinary one-two punch.
Greens have been eaten for centuries. There is evidence that they were part of the diet of prehistoric hunter-gatherers who ate plants found growing in the wild. Asian greens such as mustards and mizuna have been cultivated for more than 2,500 years.
Lettuce has been enjoyed since 550 BC when it was first served to Persian kings. These early types of lettuce were probably collected from the wild and looked different from the varieties eaten today. It is believed that the leaves grew on tall stems much like the stalks that form on our modern varieties when they bolt.
The Assyrians and the Egyptians ate lettuce and thought that the milky sap found in lettuce plants was an aphrodisiac. Paintings of a lettuce with long pointed leaves similar to today's romaine varieties have been found in Egyptian tombs.
The Romans were especially fond of a type of lettuce with erect leaves that had been found growing on the island of Cos in Greece. Today it is known as romaine, named after the place where it was popular, or Cos, for its place of origin. It has been grown for thousands of years and may be the oldest lettuce variety still cultivated today. The Romans also liked arugula and ate it for good luck.
Corn salad, also called mache, was originally found in Europe growing in the fields of grain, commonly referred to as cornfields. Peasants working in the fields would collect the leaves to eat. It became popular when served to the elite during the reign of Louis XIV.
In the US, greens have been served on dinner tables since the early settlers arrived from Europe. George Washington recommended that his soldiers eat them as "they are very conducive to health, and tend to prevent the scurvy."
In 1777, Washington issued a General Order stating that a person be sent out every day to gather the greens growing around the camp and have them distributed among the soldiers.
President Thomas Jefferson was an avid horticulturist who grew a variety of greens in his gardens including a selection of lettuces, along with endive, cress, spinach, corn salad and others. The English naturalist Richard Parkinson wrote in the late 1790's about the popularity of greens that "Indeed, in the spring they boil everything that is green, for use at the table."