The Colonial Williamsburg History of Salad Greens

Today, salad is regarded as a healthy, life-giving meal. In this excerpt, learn how the English were introduced to some of the salad greens we still enjoy.

| June 2012

After founding the Colonial Garden and Nursery in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area in 1996, Wesley Greene and his colleagues have painstakingly researched the ways the colonists planted and tended their vegetable and herb beds. In addition to preserving time-tested methods through practice, Wesley’s team shares 18th century wisdom that offers new perspective on the way we garden today in Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way (Rodale, 2012). The following excerpt from Chapter 3, “Of Salad Greens,” discusses the history of salad and reveals how leafy greens became a part of the colonial diet. 

The History of Salad

Leafy greens were likely among the first vegetables used by humankind, particularly in early spring when young, tender leaves first emerged from soil and branch. All areas of the world have indigenous greens, but most of the salad greens familiar to modern gardeners, including lettuce, spinach, endive, chard, and parsley, originated between India and the Mediterranean basin.

The English word salad derives from the Latin herba salata, or salted herb, which referred to the first salad dressing. Many of the common salad greens were introduced into England from Italy, often by way of France. John Evelyn wrote in Acetaria: a Discourse of Sallets [Salads] in 1699: "The more frugal Italians and French, to this Day, gather Ogni Verdura, any thing almost that's Green and Tender ... so as every Hedge affords a Sallet"

In addition to the familiar salad greens, many, many other plants—purslane, burdock, orache, salad burnet, sea kale, dandelion, sorrel, and Alexander—have been used as greens. Flowers also have been added to the salad bowl. Leonard Meager in The English Gardener (1683) listed the flowers of cowslip, borage, bugloss, and gillyflowers (stock) as salad ingredients. Perhaps the most common flower used in salads since its introduction into Europe from the West Indies in the 16th century has been the peppery-flavored nasturtium.

The English were not great salad eaters until the 18th century. Giacomo Castelvetro, an Italian refugee in London, commented in 1614 on the English aversion to vegetables: "The vast influx of so many refugees from the evils and cruelties of the Roman Inquisition has led to the introduction of delights previously considered inedible, worthless or even poisonous. Yet I am amazed that so few of these delicious and health-giving plants are being grown to be eaten."

The “Small Salads"

Stephen Switzer wrote of salads in 1727: "There are about thirty or forty species that are by some learned naturalists appropriated to this purpose." Other than the common greens—such as lettuce, spinach, endive, and chard—there were those collectively known as the small salads, which were a common feature in the colonial diet.

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