Glorious Greens: A Guide to the History, Health Benefits and Growing of Greens

Eating greens is a special treat. Rediscover the history, usage and varieties of greens.

| May/June 1999

From garden to galley, from green thumb to blue plate, American gardeners and gourmets are sowing and growing their way into a healthy diet of mixed greens that are great to grow and easy to eat.

It’s a diet that would do popular cartoon icon Popeye proud. However, our knowledge of greens is worlds away even from the days that Popeye sailed into the American lexicon. It’s no longer true that “. . . garden lettuce with leafy head/Is hard to get as unsliced bread,” as Ogden Nash once complained. Garden lettuce is now available in restaurants, supermarkets, farmers’ markets, and urban, suburban, and country gardens across the nation. And not only lettuce, but all manner of greens—from radicchio to romaine, cabbage to kale, mizuna to mustard. Even five years ago, most of these greens were not grown on a commercial scale, nor offered in many seed catalogs.

A confluence of factors is swelling this rediscovery of greens: interest in eating healthy, fueled by medical research into foodstuffs; an influx of immigrant populations bringing favorite greens with them; the ease of growing most greens, even in small spaces; and food professionals’ desire for plate and palate novelty.

Grab Bag of Greens

But just what are greens? They can be defined as the succulent leaves and stems, eaten cooked or raw, of herbs, flowers, and vegetables, annual and perennial, in colors ranging from pale jade green to bright magenta, from many different plant families and cultures around the world.

This grab-bag definition of greens has long been customary in Anglo-American countries, perhaps because greens are naturally abundant and generally easy to grow. A more common definition limits greens to conventional green leaves—spinach, chard, kale, collard, mustard, turnip, and beet greens, and lettuce.

Myths and Legends

Greens have a long and legendary history. The Egyptians recorded lettuce growing around 4,500 b.c. and painted romaine lettuces in royal tombs. The Sumerians listed cress, lettuce, mustard, and turnips among the crops they grew in 2,500 b.c. The ancient Greeks and Romans greatly fancied greens, particularly lettuces. The Romans ate stem lettuce, romaine lettuce, endive, chicory, and mallow in salads. One rather elaborate Roman recipe for a mixed-green salad dressing contains fresh soft cheese, honey, wine, fish sauce, vinegar, herbs, pine nuts, dates, and raisins. Though the ancients did not codify vitamin and mineral contents, they knew which greens to gather and cultivate for nutrition and flavor—and which to celebrate with stories and recipes.

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