In Praise of Lamb’s Lettuce

Lamb's Lettuce after a shower of rain

Lamb’s Lettuce after a shower of rain

This modest little annual never ceases to amaze me, as it continues to grow all through the winter producing little bites of freshness whenever I want some salad leaves. Unlike many winter leafy plants (eg land cress, mizuna or pak choi) it does not become tough or peppery in flavour, but remains slightly sweet and crunchy all year. It seeds itself everywhere, covering the ground with a green carpet, so where I do not want it, such as on the gravel pathways, I eat it. (Preferably before it runs to seed!) Lettuce does not overwinter, but Lamb’s Lettuce does – and makes a great addition to soup or steamed as a vegetable if not wanted fresh.

Botanically known as Valerianella locusta, it is also commonly known as Corn Salad thanks to its propensity to grow as an edible weed in wheat (corn) fields, and as Mache or Rapunzel in Europe, although this last name is also applied to Campanula rapunculus.

I like the idea of Lamb’s Lettuce being the plant referred to in the Rapunzel story, and it makes perfect sense to me that a pregnant woman would be desperate to eat some in the middle of winter. I can imagine her sitting at her window, in a barren, cold and frosty land, desperate for something nice and fresh to eat that won’t make her stomach turn. There is nothing to eat in her garden and just stodgy old root vegetables left in store, but next door, where the witch lives, there is a carpet of edible green that no one is touching. Oh how that would make her pine for it each day! And yes, the first time she persuades her husband to go, it is even better than she had hoped, for she sends him again…

So there you have it – Rapunzel’s mother was pregnant in winter, and desperate for something crisp and fresh, and packed with nutrients (Vitamins A, B6 and C, plus iron and potassium) that would help her through. Pretty and edible as the Campanula is, I can’t see it inducing any kind of desperation in late spring when so many other plants are also abundant.

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