Grow This Lettuce For The Stem—Not The Leaf

Celtuce is an easy-to-grow vegetable that tolerates both hot and cold weather and delivers a delicious flavor with crisp texture.

by Jessica Walliser
PHOTO: Charles Haynes/Flickr

With the rise in popularity of a broad diversity of ethnic crops, it’s a wonder more farmers haven’t latched onto growing celtuce and introducing it to their customers.

What Is Celtuce?

Also known as stem lettuce, asparagus lettuce or celery lettuce, celtuce (Lactuca sativa var. augustana) is a specific variety of lettuce grown for its thick, fleshy stems. A popular Asian vegetable, celtuce has yet to be adopted by many North American cooks, but once they give it a go, they won’t look back.

While the leaves can be eaten in the spring, just like any other type of lettuce, celtuce is prized for its tender white stems. Eaten cooked or raw, celtuce can be prepared in many different ways. Its mild, nutty flavor is delicious grilled or stir-fried. The stems can also be roasted or even pickled.

Growing Celtuce

In northern areas, celtuce seeds are best sown directly into the garden in mid-spring. In the South, seeds should be planted in the autumn for winter harvests. Once the seedlings reach a few inches tall, thin them to 10 to 12 inches apart. Choose a site with full sun exposure and well-drained soil, rich in organic matter.

Although the leaves can be harvested at any time for use as a fresh green, for the best stem production, allow the plants to grow throughout the summer. The thick stems are then harvested in mid to late summer, typically in early August here in my Pennsylvania garden.

Harvesting Celtuce

At harvest time, celtuce stems should be about 1 inch in diameter and 12 to 18 inches tall. I find that picking them in the morning results in a crisper texture than afternoon harvests.

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To harvest celtuce stems, snap or cut them off at ground level, leaving the uppermost leaves intact but tugging off the lowest leaves. By mid-summer, these lower leaves are often a bit bitter, but unlike the leaves, the stems of celtuce do not grow bitter in summer’s heat. The flavor remains mild and delicious.

To prepare celtuce, peel the stem with a knife to reveal the inner white flesh. It can be sliced and served raw in salads and slaws, and even after cooking, it remains crispy, with a texture much like kohlrabi.

At the end of the growing season, should your celtuce go to flower, let it do so. It will drop seeds that will grow into next year’s crop without any help from you.

Seeds of celtuce are available from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed, Kitazawa Seeds and Johnny’s Selected Seeds.


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