white text overlay basket of salad lettuce leaves

Unusual Salad Greens: Bringing Health and Crunch to Your Table

Until the mid-1980s, America’s salad greens were pretty much limited to two options: iceberg and romaine. This lack of choice led to decades of uninspired salads, defined more by their toppings than the leafy bits in the bottom of the bowl. All that has changed, of course, and lettuces now come in dozens of delicious, unusual salad greens, from French dandelion to heat resistant mizuna.

Jordan’s Merlot lettuce—and, in fact, most of the estate’s organic vegetables—are grown from seed obtained from the Baker Creek Seed Company, based in Mansfield, Missouri. This company has been our source for heirloom non-GMO, open-pollinated seed and starters for more than 15 years now. Their selection, strong starters and superior germination rates are a cornerstone of the Jordan garden.

Baker Creek’s founder Gettle explains that Heirloom seed varieties are typically more than 50 years old—passed down from generation to generation by seed-saving farmers. Unlike conventional seed varieties, heirlooms are naturally pollinated by birds, insects, or the wind, and have not been genetically modified or hybridized. And because they haven’t been bred to cultivate perfect looks or the ability to survive transport across the country, heirloom vegetables are often more flavorful than their conventional counterparts.

We agree, and grow a wide variety of heirloom salad greens to spice up our dishes at Jordan Winery. Here are some of the other unusual salad greens that we are planting from Baker Creek Seed Company this year. You can purchase all these heirloom lettuce seeds at Baker Seeds.

Our List of Unusual Salad Greens

close up of jordan winery's garden merlot lettuce leaves with chef's knife

Merlot

Jordan Winery grows many types of heirloom lettuces in its organic estate garden, but I’m particularly smitten with a new addition called Merlot lettuce. Planted in the winery garden for the first time in 2019, the variety was first brought to the United States from Holland in the 1980s as “galactic” lettuce and later renamed for its wine-like hue. Merlot lettuce’s glossy leaves are said to be the darkest red of all the lettuces, chock full of healthy antioxidants. Aside from its gorgeous color, Merlot lettuce adds a rich, savory flavor to seasonal salads such as my Garden Merlot Lettuce Salad recipe. I enjoy partnering it with other wild greens, like Miner’s lettuce, as well as other heirloom lettuces, for a variety of flavors and textures.

close up of mizuna lettuce leaves

Mizuna

Originally bred in Japan to withstand humidity and heat, Mizuna can handle all the summer-loving you can give it. The flavor is similar to arugula with a mild, spicy pepperiness. The juicy, watery stems are delicious in a salad but can also be used in stir-fries, soups, hot pots or even pickled. The plant yields several harvests throughout the season. Fantastic with our Roasted Red Beet Salad.

close up french dandelion lettuce leaf

French Dandelion

A perennial salad green, French dandelion is often confused with the yellow-flowered weed most gardeners dread. But this easy-to-grow heirloom variety is in the chicory family, highly nutritious and reportedly contains potent antioxidants. Use the younger leaves in salads and the older ones in stir-fries or boiled greens. They can also be dried for use in a tisane. Ideal with our Raspberry Vinaigrette.

close up of lettuce leaf basil plant on wooden board

Lettuce Leaf Basil

If you like basil, then welcome its bigger, fragrant cousin to your heirloom lettuce garden. Lettuce leaf basil has a slightly different flavor than its smaller self — more on the licorice side. In addition to salads, I love it for pesto, adding to vegetable dishes and even lettuce wraps. It’s also ideal in an ornamental garden, with interesting chartreuse-colored leaves.

close up of tom thumb lettuce leaves on wooden board

Tom Thumb

A fast-growing lettuce variety ideal for salads, this unusual salad green dates to the 1850s. It makes tea-cup sized heads with silky leaves, only 3-4 inches across. It’s popular with apartment gardeners since it grows easily and is very compact.

merveille des quatre saisons lettuce leaves on wooden board

Merveille Des Quatre Saisons

A pre-1885 French heirloom, Merveille Des Quatre Saisons is crisp, tender and very attractive with a stunning red and green hue. This variety has a delicate, mild flavor that can be featured on its own in a salad or with other delicate greens. Very easy to grow and seemingly pest resistant. Try this unusual salad green with our Sherry Shallot Vinaigrette.

While heirlooms have a reputation for being harder to grow and more susceptible to diseases, Baker Creek’s Gettle says that is not the case if they are planted in the right place. Many perform extremely well when grown in a region similar to where they were developed. Check out Baker Creek’s website for more information about each of these unique lettuces and how to grow them well.

Want to garden more this year? Read our favorite heirloom tomato varieties.

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About the Author

Growing up in Hawaii, Todd Knoll developed a strong connection to the land and the ocean at an early age. As executive chef at Jordan Winery, he grows hundreds of heirloom vegetables, fruits and herbs, cooks hors d’oeuvres and meals for guests, makes olive oil, and tends to the estate’s honeybees and chickens. A visual artist at heart, Chef Knoll spends his free time with his son and wife, Nitsa Knoll, exploring the diverse terrain of Sonoma County with camera and pencil in hand, capturing moments in nature to inspire his next recipe.

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