Butterhead (aka bibb) lettuce, with its smooth, soft leaves and loose heads, is by far my favorite kind. It’s also rather pricey in the stores. I probably plant twice as much butterhead as I do all the other varieties combined.
I’ve been hunting for a butterhead that is big, holds for several weeks at maturity, resists tipburn (a problem with our hot, dry, windy weather), and is tender and flavorful—a pretty tall order. I finally came up with a winner, but let me first tell you about the also-rans.
Probably the most popular bibb lettuce is Buttercrunch, an All America winner back in the 60s. Every catalog raves about it, so I feel a bit odd when I say I don’t really like it that much. Maybe it’s just that I want my butter lettuce to be buttery, not crunchy.
Another very popular variety is the heirloom Merveille des Quatre Saisons, translated into English as Four Seasons and also known as Continuity. It has reddish outer leaves and a fine flavor, but like so many older varieties, it doesn’t hold in the field as long as the newer hybrids.
I trialed Burpee Bibb last year but it was the first to bolt, so I won’t be buying that again. Tom Thumb was all right but small; the catalog said one head makes a salad for one, but they haven’t met my salad-inhaling family. Bronze Mignonette didn’t like growing in Colorado—for some obscure reason it just sat there while everything else grew around it.
So, after all that, what do I recommend?
My first love was Esmerelda. It was big, it was luscious, and it tasted heavenly. The only drawback was that I had some trouble with tipburn, where the tips of the leaves die and turn brown. (Tipburn is actually caused by a calcium deficiency so it should not be a problem in our calcitic soils, but uneven watering can interfere with calcium uptake, resulting in disfigured leaves even when calcium is plentiful.)
Then the catalog where I was buying it stopped carrying it. Esmerelda is still available from other seed companies, but I hate to only order one packet from a catalog—the shipping and handling can more than double the price!
After moping for a season or two, I came up with another variety I like even better, and recommend wholeheartedly: Optima. Again, it has big, fleshy green leaves of deep emerald green, and stands well without turning bitter. Even better, it’s resistant to tipburn. I buy my Optima seeds from Territorial Seed Company in Oregon, but lots of other companies offer it as well. (Territorial Seeds has a delectable selection of lettuce varieties, but I have to keep in mind that my growing conditions are very different from their trial gardens.)
Colorado State University has run some very helpful trials of these and other lettuce varieties. If you live along the Front Range, you should definitely check out their results.
The fun thing about growing lettuce is that there are so many great varieties to choose from, and for the most part, it’s easy to be successful. There’s just no excuse for a boring salad!
Do you grow butterhead lettuce? What are your favorite kinds?