Merlot Lettuce

Grown in 2014.
Packet = around 100 seeds

Merlot is truly the deep wine-red color of its name. Of all the red lettuces I’ve tried, and it’s been something of an obsession, this is the first one I’ve wanted to save for seed. It’s a fast-growing pick-as-you-need-it loose-leaf variety, and in the 2011 lettuce variety trial it was the last to bolt. The deep red color means lots of anthocyanins, making Merlot an especially healthy choice.

Culture: Plant in early to late spring, or in late summer for autumn salads – it can tolerate light frosts. Full sun in cool weather, down to half sun in heat.

Saving seed: Lettuce is primarily inbreeding. In an ideal lettuce season the flowers pollinate themselves before they open, so isolation distances are not an issue. However, if the weather is too cold (below 70 degrees Fahrenheit) the pollen may not form until the flowers open, and if it’s too hot (over 70 degrees) the flowers may open early, before pollination – in either case making them attractive stops for insect pollinators. Here, where summer nights are in the 40s and days in the 90s, I treat lettuce like a cross-pollinator just to be on the safe side. I grow only one variety for seed at a time, and am vigilant about pulling up any wild lettuce I find. Saving from a minimum of 20 plants will ensure continuing genetic diversity.

Lettuce is an ideal plant to grow for seed on the northern California coast, and I’d love to add coastal growers to the developing regional network.Email me

The seeds won’t ripen all at once, and ripe seeds are prone to wafting away on their little feather parachutes. You can harvest several times by knocking ripe seed into a paper bag – or if wind doesn’t seem to be an issue, wait until the stalks are topped in clouds of fluff to cut them, upend them into paper bags, and hang in a dark dry spot until stalks are crispy.

Cleaning the seeds is not easy, since they are light in weight and about the same size as the chaff. Winnow very gently. For small batches, spreading the mix on a shallow platter and blowing softly may be both easiest and most effective.