Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Channeling Thomas Jefferson: Tennis Ball Lettuce

Drawing from Vilmorin-Andrieux, The Vegetable Garden (1885)
*Note: This begins my series on the origins of this year's heirloom garden.

Thomas Jefferson may not have been the only historical figure who grew Tennis Ball Lettuce, but he is the inspiration behind my decision to make space for this heirloom in my 2012 garden.  As a Founding Father, author of the Declaration of Independence, and early President of the United States, Jefferson was a prominent figure in my childhood history books.  What I never learned in school, though, was that Jefferson was also a horticulturalist and avid gardener.  Over the course of several decades, he experimented with close to 250 varieties of vegetables on his 1,000 acre garden at Monticello.  I would love to visit his restored gardens someday.
Tennis Ball lettuce can be traced to the early 17th century, although its exact origins are unknown.  It was popular in colonial American kitchen gardens, and was preserved for winter use in a salt brine.  Colonists in places like Williamsburg purchased many of their vegetables from nearby plantations, but maintained small kitchen gardens for their favorite garden delights, including lettuce and many types of herbs.   Jefferson's records indicate that he was growing Tennis Ball by 1809.  Because the variety was fairly hardy and did not require delicate handling and care, it was a favorite at Monticello.  This, despite the fact that Jefferson continued to grow close to 15 types of lettuce.  
Tennis Ball is a parent of today's Boston lettuce.  It is a black-seeded variety, with early ripening (50d), compact heads that grow in the form of small rosettes.  Its coloration is a medium green with shiny, silky leaves.  The texture is crisp and taste sweet.  Although many early colonists grew this variety, it did not reach its height of popularity until the mid-1850s, decades after Jefferson's death.  For indications of its continued cultivation well into the 1800s, one only needs to look at the popular garden books of the day, such as Fearing Burr's 1866 publication, Garden Vegetables and How to Cultivate Them.  Burr described Tennis Ball as "one of the oldest and most esteemed of the cabbage lettuces...remarkable for its extreme hardiness" (p. 202-3).
I first came across a listing for Tennis Ball lettuce in the catalog of Seed Savers Exchange last summer.  I was intrigued the minute I noticed that the variety was attributed to Jefferson, and knew almost instantly that I would try it in this year's garden.  I am truly looking forward to experimenting with an authentic early American lettuce from our nation's heritage.  Although, I have to say, I think I will be enjoying mine fresh and not pickling it in salt brine!  

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