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Saturday, July 25, 2015

Kissin' Cousins: Relationships that may surprise you: Lettuce

Lettuce is a kissin' cousin of . . . those?

Trying something new and casual for Plainfield Today's weekend readers.

I had a high school biology teacher who would occasionally try to interest students in the subject matter by asking if we knew which plants in a list were related to each other.

The little game always fascinated me, and I thought Plainfield Today readers might enjoy some of these plant pairings, so I'll call them 'Kissin' Cousins" and if the idea clicks I may do more in the future.

For today, did you know that Lettuce and Sunflowers are kissin' cousins?

Both are members of the Asteraceae, or daisy, family.

The resemblances become more obvious if we understand that, like dogs and cats, these plants have been bred for certain characteristics, which tends to mask their similarities.

What to you think of when you hear the word 'Sunflower'? Most likely, the 8-foot tall monsters with giant flowers. These are specially bred to be grown for their seeds, which are pressed for sunflower oil.

But doing this masks the fact that original sunflowers were smaller and more obviously daisy-like.

Sunflowers are an important commercial crop, grown for their

...which has led them to be bred into giants reaching as high as ten feet...

...but in their wild form, they much more resemble the daisy family
of which they are an important member.

Lettuce is a different story. Far from being bred to develop huge flowers, lettuce has been bred for its succulent leaves.

What we actually eat is immature lettuce, lettuce that has been harvested before its flower stalks, which can be as much as four feet high, develop.

Add to that the pressures of commerce, and you have Iceberg Lettuce, engineered to develop in a tight ball that would ship over long distances and still maintain its crispness.

Lettuce first appealed to the Egyptians, who grew it for its seeds, which produced an oil they found useful.

But along the way, they also found the immature plant's succulent leaves tasty. Food historians suggest that the most ancient lettuce cultivated for its leaves closely resembles what we today call Romaine Lettuce.


Iceberg lettuce is a marketing monstrosity...

...and hardly resembles its most ancient cultivated form,
which is today represented by Romaine lettuce.

You can begin to see its relation to the daisy family when
lettuce's flower stalks are allowed to develop...

...and the relationship becomes even more obvious
with the full flowers.

Hope you enjoyed this little weekend side trip!

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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