Lettuce's popular history of medicinal usage typically took one of two directions: its employment as a sleep-inducing aid, and its ability to "cool and refresh" both mind and body. Greek myth recounts that, when Adonis died, Venus threw herself onto a bed of lettuce to both lull her grief and cool her desire. John Evelyn makes reference to lettuce's most prevalent uses as well as the poignant denouement of the mythic lovers in his Acetaria of 1699, reporting: "Lettuce, Lactuca: Tho' by metaphor call'd ‘Mortuorum Cibi,' [to say nothing of Adonis and his sad mistress] by reason of its soporiferous quality, ever was and still continues the principal foundation of the universal tribe of sallets; which is to cool and refresh. . . ."
Which red lettuce is best?
There are hundreds of varieties of cultivated lettuce, scores of them notable for their variously commendable physical attractions, with red tinged lettuces having been known since the earliest days of cultivation. Vilmorin-Andrieux mentions numerous red-spotted, striated, dappled, and tipped forms of both the Cabbage-Headed and Cos varieties in The Vegetable Garden of 1885, however, not a one of these could truly be called utterly red. Today, varieties with names like ‘Red Velvet,' ‘Rossimo' and ‘Outredgeous' vie for the uniformly carmine crown but a truly, really consistently and deeply red lettuce is still a rarity and, as such, the gorgeous variety "Merlot" is worthy of our undivided attention.
Merlot is a relatively new hybrid lettuce of such dramatic and homogenous deep burgundy intensity, its only crimson competition in the garden will be the Ruby Cabbages, burgundy-plumaged Beets, and some of the Amaranths and Orachs you plant. In any case, do find a place for this indisputable garden dazzler, as it is sure to sound a brilliant and virtually peerless ruby-toned note in any vegetable plot. These dramatically scarlet, medium-sized beauties have a prettily ruffled, loose-leaf habit, growing to about 8 inches in diameter, and possess the additional benefits of a slow bolting demeanor and excellent suitability to cut-and-come-again culture.
Direct sow Merlot in early spring 1⁄8 inch deep, ultimately thinning to 8 inches apart, or start inside and plant out after danger of frost. In general, lettuce sowed in hot weather goes to seed quickly, though this vivacious cultivar is more bolt-resistant than most, but do cut or pick often once the leaves reach their desired size. Also, planting lettuces in partial shade will help retard midsummer bolting. I'll take these dressed simply with a good Dijon vinaigrette, a dusting of crumbled blue cheese and a handful of golden raisins.