Mother Earth Living

The Colonial Williamsburg History of Salad Greens

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.

The small salads are plants, such as cresses, that have been consumed since before recorded history, but that have never developed much beyond their primeval appearance. Many of them, to this day, can be gathered in the wild. The small salad disappeared for a time from the American diet and was reinvented by 20th-century gardeners as mesclun mix.

Cress Varieties

There are a number of plants that carry the name of cress, but the four primary culinary cresses are watercress (Nasturtium officinale), winter or upland cress (Barbarea vulgaris), garden cress (Lepidium sativum), and Indian cress (Tropaeolum), which is called nasturtium today.

Cresses are among the most ancient of salad greens and have been used by humankind since records have been kept. The first European reference to cress comes from a German monk named Walafrid Strabo (Walafrid the Squint-Eyed). He mentioned cress in Hortulus in 840 CE, though there is no way to know which cress he meant.

Watercress grows in shallow water, preferring the edges of streams. Throughout history, it has been gathered wild and seldom grown in gardens. It is not advisable to gather watercress from the wild today, as it may carry a particularly nasty liver fluke that is most prevalent in pastures where sheep have grazed.

Winter cress, also known as scurvy grass, is a widely dispersed European herb named for Saint Barbara. It long ago took up residence in this country as the common, roadside yellow rocket. Winter cress is the hardiest and strongest flavored of the cresses. Its wayfaring habit has long been noted. John Gerard described this plant in the 1597 Herball: “It groweth in gardens among pot herbes, and very common in the fields, neere to pathes and high waies, almost every where.” To this day, winter cress, known as “creasy greens” to Southern cooks, is gathered in the wild along paths and highways. A close relative known as upland cress (B. verna) is the preferred variety and the one that is sometimes brought into the garden.

By the 18th century, winter cress had largely fallen out of favor. Philip Miller wrote of winter cress in The Gardeners Dictionary (1768): “These were formerly eaten in winter sallads, before the English gardens were furnished with better plants; since when they have been rejected, for they have a rank smell, and are disagreeable to the palate.”

The “better plants” Miller was referring to were the several forms of garden cress, L. sativum, also known as peppergrass. This is the most common cress sold at market and grown in the garden today. It is better flavored than the winter cress but not nearly as cold-hardy.

Garden cress was probably introduced into England in the 16th century. John Gerard listed and illustrated several types of cress in the Herball (1597). His description read: “Garden Cresses or Towne Cresses, hath small narrow jagged leaves, sharp and burning in taste.” Garden cress has both smooth and curled leaf forms. The curled form has been the most esteemed variety throughout history by most authors, but William Cobbett wrote in The American Gardener (1821): “The curled is prettiest, and is, therefore, generally preferred; but, the plain is the best.”

The Celebrated Indian Cress

There are two forms of the celebrated Indian cress or nasturtium: Tropaeolum minus, the dwarf form with small leaves and generally of a bushy habit, and T. majus, the larger-leaved climbing form. Both forms are native to Peru, but the first plants exported to Europe originated in the West Indies; hence the name of Indian cress.

John Parkinson wrote in Paradisi in Sole (1629): “Indian Cresses, or yellow Larkes heeles … is of so great beauty and sweetnesse withall, that my Garden of delight cannot bee unfurnished of it.” Stephen Switzer wrote in The Practical Kitchen Gardiner (1727): “Of the cresses there are three or four sorts that are admitted into the garden…. the Indian kind is recommended above all.” Switzer added that it is of use for “quickning the drooping spirits, purging the brain, and of singular effect in the scurvy, so that all Englishmen can’t eat too much of this herb, or chew it too much.”

The smaller T. minus was introduced into Europe first, but was quickly replaced by the larger T. majus, introduced in the 1680s. In Virginia, John Randolph recorded: “If stuck they will climb a great height and will last till the frost come, and then totally perish. It is thought the flower is superior to a radish in flavour, and is eat in sallads or without.” In Philadelphia in 1806, Bernard McMahon recorded: “[The seedpods] make one of the nicest pickles that can possibly be conceived.”

More About Cresses and Their Seasons

Winter cress and garden cress are sown in the garden in early fall, at the same time that spinach is planted. Winter cress, or the upland cress, will survive winter in most parts of the country for a late winter or early spring harvest. Garden cress will not stand the frost, but is a very fast grower and can be sown every 10 days until about a month before hard frost sets in. After this, it can be sown in frames.

Both cresses are easily cultivated. As explained by Samuel Fullmer in The Young Gardener’s Best Companion (1795): “For each sowing, draw very shallow, flat drills [shallow furrows], with the edge of the hoe held horizontally, sow the seed very thick, and cover it lightly with earth; or instead … smooth the surface, by fine raking it, and sow the seed thereon quite thick, smooth it down with the back of the spade, and sift earth over it half a quarter or an inch deep.”

Cresses are best when harvested very young. As Fullmer explained: “The plants are commonly in best perfection for sallads, when in the seed-leaves, or not above a week or fortnight old; either cutting them clean up within the surface, or cut off above ground, to shoot again.”

While the fall sowing of cresses requires the least management, provisions must be made for spring and summer. As stated in Adam’s Luxury, and Eve’s Cookery (1744): “THIS Plant is very much esteemed for mixing in Sallets, and is to be cultivated all the Year.” To accomplish this, you can start sowing the garden cress out of doors after the danger of frost in spring and continue throughout summer. You will find that the summer crop is best grown in containers. As suggested by Walter Nicol in 1798: “With the addition of a few boxes, tubs, or large pots, [garden cress] may be had every day in the year, in abundance, by the trouble of sowing once a week, or ten days, as occasion shall require.”

The Indian cress, or nasturtium, is sensitive to both frost and hot weather. The seeds are quite large, and germination is hastened by soaking them overnight. Nasturtium seeds should be planted 1/2 inch deep, as they must have darkness to germinate. In Williamsburg, we sow the seed in late August. While it will germinate and grow in the heat of August, nasturtium does not come into its own until the weather cools in late September. In cooler climates, nasturtium will grow throughout summer.

Types of Mustard

There are quite a number of plants that have carried the name “mustard” over the centuries, but the principal ones are white mustard (Sinapis alba), brown mustard (Brassica juncea), black mustard (B. nigra), and Ethiopian mustard (B. carinata). In the modern condiment, the white mustard gives the spicy quality, while the brown or black gives the mustard its pungency. The term mustard comes from the use of the seeds to form a sweet “must,” a component of old wines. The crushed seeds were formed into a paste called “hot must” or mustum ardens.

The mustard green used in Southern cooking today is an Asian plant (B. juncea) and was not known in colonial America.

White Mustard

White mustard is a native of the Mediterranean basin and southern Europe and provided one of the earliest spices known to humankind. It is mentioned in Sanskrit records dating to around 3000 BCE and was first noted in England by Aelfric of Eynsham in 995 CE.

As a salad green, white mustard has always been the preferred species. In Adam’s Luxury, and Eve’s Cookery (1744), it is observed: “THERE are two Sorts of Mustard, White and Red; but the White only being cultivated in the Kitchen-Garden…. This is propagated by Seed for Sallets to mix with Cresses, &c. [etc.], all the Year.”

White mustard was an indispensable component of the English diet. Stephen Switzer observed in 1727: “The young mustard plants … when they are just peeping out of the bed, are of incomparable effect to quicken and revive the spirits, they strengthen the memory, expel heaviness…. In short, it’s the noble embamma [sauce], and so necessary an ingredient in all cold raw salleting, that it is very rarely, if at all, left out.”

White mustard arrived in North America sometime in the 17th century and quickly made itself at home. It is now found growing wild in almost every state of the continental United States and in most parts of Canada.

Harvesting and Growing Mustard

Mustard is as easy or easier to grow than cress. It germinates quickly and is often ready as a sprout within a fortnight (2 weeks) of sowing. This prompted Stephen Switzer to observe in 1727 that mustard can be raised for seasoning “during the roasting a joint of meat.”

It prefers a sweet soil, so the addition of marl, or lime, is often beneficial. Sow the seeds on a well-prepared bed, not prone to crusting, in shallow drills, or broadcast and gently rake the seeds in. Once the seeds are covered, tamp the ground lightly with the end of a rake and water regularly. The seeds will germinate in 3 or 4 days, and harvest can begin within 10 days or 2 weeks and continue until hard frosts arrive.

Mustard can then be sown in frames for a winter crop. For the summer season, mustard is best sown in pots, often mixed with other small salad greens such as cress and rocket. Some shade in the afternoon is beneficial during the hottest months.

If the seed is desired, the pods will be ready for harvest in 8 to 10 weeks. The leaves are unfit to eat once the seedpods have formed and may even be toxic.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way by Wesley Greene, published by Rodale, 2012.

  • Published on Jun 12, 2012
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