Lettuce (Lactuca sativa) is an annual plant of the daisy family, Asteraceae. It is most often grown as a leaf vegetable, but sometimes for its stem and seeds. Lettuce is most often used for salads, although it is also seen in other kinds of food, such as soups, sandwiches and wraps; it can also be grilled. One variety, the woju (莴苣), or asparagus lettuce (celtuce), is grown for its stems, which are eaten either raw or cooked. In addition to its main use as a leafy green, it has also gathered religious and medicinal significance over centuries of human consumption. Europe and North America originally dominated the market for lettuce, but by the late 20th century the consumption of lettuce had spread throughout the world. World production of lettuce and chicory for calendar year 2013 was 24.9 million tonnes, over half of which came from China.
Lettuce was first cultivated by the ancient Egyptians who turned it from a weed whose seeds were used to produce oil, into a food plant grown for its succulent leaves and oil-rich seeds. Lettuce spread to the Greeks and Romans, the latter of whom gave it the name lactuca, from which the English lettuce is ultimately derived. By 50 AD, multiple types were described, and lettuce appeared often in medieval writings, including several herbals. The 16th through 18th centuries saw the development of many varieties in Europe, and by the mid-18th century cultivars were described that can still be found in gardens.
Generally grown as a hardy annual, lettuce is easily cultivated, although it requires relatively low temperatures to prevent it from flowering quickly. It can be plagued by numerous nutrient deficiencies, as well as insect and mammal pests, and fungal and bacterial diseases. L. sativa crosses easily within the species and with some other species within the Lactuca genus. Although this trait can be a problem to home gardeners who attempt to save seeds, biologists have used it to broaden the gene pool of cultivated lettuce varieties.
Lettuce is a rich source of vitamin K and vitamin A, and a moderate source of folate and iron. Contaminated lettuce is often a source of bacterial, viral and parasitic outbreaks in humans, including E. coli and Salmonella.
Lactuca sativa is a member of the Lactuca (lettuce) genus and the Asteraceae (sunflower or aster) family. The species was first described in 1753 by Carl Linnaeus in the second volume of his Species Plantarum. Synonyms for L. sativa include Lactuca scariola var. sativa, L. scariola var. integrata and L. scariola var. integrifolia. L. scariola is itself a synonym for L. serriola, the common wild or prickly lettuce. L. sativa also has many identified taxonomic groups, subspecies and varieties, which delineate the various cultivar groups of domesticated lettuce. Lettuce is closely related to several Lactuca species from southwest Asia; the closest relationship is to L. serriola, an aggressive weed common in temperate and subtropical zones in much of the world.
The Romans referred to lettuce as lactuca (lac meaning milk in Latin), an allusion to the white substance, now called latex, exuded by cut stems. This word has become the genus name, while sativa (meaning “sown” or “cultivated”) was added to create the species name.The current word lettuce, originally from Middle English, came from the Old French letues or laitues, which derived from the Roman name. The name romaine came from that type’s use in the Roman papal gardens, while cos, another term for romaine lettuce, came from the earliest European seeds of the type from the Greek island of Cos, a center of lettuce farming in the Byzantine period.