Thursday, February 16, 2012

Merveille Des Quatre Saisons: A French Heirloom Lettuce

Vilmorin, The Vegetable Garden (1885), p. 301
Move over, Tennis Ball lettuce.  You have competition this year.  I may not be as ambitious as Thomas Jefferson with 15 varieties of lettuce in my garden, but then my garden is far from 1,000 sq. feet.
The Merveille Des Quatre Saisons (Marvel of Four Seasons) lettuce captured my imagination with its beautiful reddish-tiipped leaves and rosette formation.  A crispy butterhead variety, Merveille matures in 60 days.  Apparently, this lettuce really is a marvel of four seasons, as it is rumored to grow any time of year.  
Lettuce is an interesting crop.  A native of the Mediterranean region, it eventually made its way to Europe, where it has been lovingly cultivated in kitchen gardens for centuries.  There is relatively little history available on the Merveille variety -- I really had a tough time digging up some good dirt!  I started with a notation on my seed packet dating the Merveille as a pre-1885 French heirloom.  After checking several sources with no luck, I eventually found that the variety was first listed in Vilmorin's 1885 The Vegetable Garden.  And there it was, picture and all, listed under the name "Red Besson."  Mystery solved.
Vilmorin classifies Merveille as a cabbage lettuce, a young plant with vigorous growth.  The notation "young plant" seems to indicate that the Merveille was a relatively new variety in 1885, a fact that is corroborated by my difficulties locating it in earlier garden references.  Vilmorin traced the lettuce to Paris, but nothing further is known regarding this remarkable variety's history.

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