Q: When is a weed not a weed? A: When it is the most valuable salad crop in winter! Last year I set myself the challenge of growing salad all year round which was fine for most of the year but much more of a challenge in winter. When temperatures are hovering around freezing nothing much grows. However, there is one amazing plant that can provide fresh leaves when others are dormant: lamb’s lettuce (also known as mâche or corn salad).
Lamb’s lettuce has its origins as a weed which was found growing among cereal crops in Europe. By all accounts it should be an unremarkable plant - the leaves are small (little more than thumb size) and the plants rarely grow bigger than a single low-lying rosette a few inches in diameter. It also grows quite slowly (unlike most weeds on that point!) and you need a lot of plants to get a reasonable crop. All this can be forgiven though because of its ability to provide a source of fresh leaves when little else is available in the garden.
Of course, a late-summer or early fall sowing can yield plentiful supplies of many salad leaves. Most lettuce will grow well into early winter and there are plenty of oriental salad leaves that actually thrive on shortening daylight hours: arugula, mizuna, mibuna, pak choi and red mustards. However, two things happen to most of these crops as winter progresses:
- The leaves toughen up as the weather turns harsher, giving them a less pleasant texture
- The more flavorful leaves (most of the oriental types) become hotter and more peppery in taste
The reason lamb’s lettuce is so valuable is that it doesn’t suffer from these problems. As it is able to continue slow growth through low temperatures the leaves remain succulent with a slight waxy texture to them which may be what protects them from the elements. Equally important is that the flavor remains mild and delicate, some would say slightly nutty. I find they make the perfect balance to the sharp flavors of the remaining oriental salad leaves in my garden.
Because lamb’s lettuce grows so slowly it is necessary to sow quite large areas with the seeds to produce a reasonable amount that can be used through winter into early spring. This should be no problem because most vegetable beds are being cleared when lamb’s lettuce is sown. In fact, it makes a good cover crop and any excess can be dug into the soil when finished with, enriching it with nutrients for the next season. So, next year I plan to extend my sowing to cover more beds as I would love to have more of this growing.
Cloches or row covers can be used to speed up growth but it is important to make sure they are opened on sunny days as a sudden rise in temperature can cause the plants to bolt (run to seed) and stop producing. I have found covers to be largely unnecessary as my lamb’s lettuce has survived a few weeks of snow covering and still tastes good.
As with most salad crops, lamb’s lettuce can be picked as whole rosettes or harvested by plucking individual leaves every week or so. Picked leaves will store well in a bag in the refrigerator and just need washing well before use as they are produced so close to the soil. They can then be mixed with other salad ingredients or dressed with some of the more mild-tasting oils and vinaigrettes. For the more adventurous, why not serve them in traditional French style with beets and walnut oil dressing?
In fact lamb’s lettuce is now finding a place on the menus of many quality restaurants as an ultra-healthy, low-calorie ingredient. It seems that this one-time weed is making quite a name for itself as a versatile leaf that combines well with other flavors and textures. So, why not give lamb’s lettuce a try and start growing this weed for fun? If you do grow it, or have had success with other winter greens then please share your experiences by adding a comment below.