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The Ancient Gardener's Instructor: Dispatches from Wesley Greene

January 16, 2013

From the Garden, January 16

corn salad

corn salad

In the coldest days of winter we turn to that group of plants known as the small salads. These minor greens were well known to our colonial predecessors but are too often overlooked by the modern gardener. In the autumn garden we were supplied with white mustard and garden cress, but these tender greens wither in the colder temperatures of mid-winter and are replaced by corn salad and winter cress; the hardiest of all the small salads.

Corn salad is also known by the English as lamb’s lettuce because it is one of the few greens that will survive the winter to be available to the spring lambs. The French call it mâche, and the Germans name it feldsalat (field salad) which recognizes its origin as a plant gathered from the wild, which mankind has been doing for a very long time. Evidence of corn salad has been found amongst the remains of Swiss lake dwellings dating from the late Stone Age and it has likely been gathered from the wild since prehistoric times. It is a small, tidy green with a faintly nutty flavor that, like spinach, is difficult to germinate in a warm soil so is best left for cooler weather. With the refinement of market gardening in the 19th century that made salad greens available throughout the year, corn salad, along with many of the other small salads, was largely abandoned. In 1821 William Cobbett wrote of corn salad in American Gardener: “This is a little insignificant annual plant that some persons use in salads, though it can hardly be of any real use, where lettuce seed is to be had. It is a mere weed.” Unfortunately, it is a reputation that has followed this useful winter green to this very day.

winter cress

winter cress

Equally as cold hardy is the winter cress, another northern European weed that long ago took up residence in this country as the ubiquitous Yellow Rocket, whose bright yellow flowers adorn American roadsides in late spring. Its wayfaring habit has long been noted. In 1597 John Gerard observed: “It groweth in gardens among pot herbes, and very common in the fields, neere to pathes and high wayes, almost every where.” It was also known as scurvy grass in Europe as it was one of few greens available in mid-winter to help prevent this debilitating disease. In the southern United States it goes by the name of “Creasy Greens” and its sharp, biting flavor may be used to liven up either the salad or the stew pot.

For a complete examination of the small salads you are invited to inspect Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way, 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardeners (Rodale Press)

Comments

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  1. Hi Wesley,
    This morning on the Blog for “Today in the 1770′s” the article mentioned getting “molosses/molasses” from “pumkins/pumpkins” in order to cut the import of foreign and taxed molosses. Have you or the Foodways crew ever shown this at CW?
    Has CW ever thought about selling seeds like they do at Monticello and Mount Vernon? I was able to find “corn salad” and ‘creasy greens” on-line at a place called Local Harvest (localharvest.org). The pictures did look very similar to what you had on the Garden Blog. They listed the creasy greens under herbs. and cornsalad seed as Lamb’s Lettuce. I’m wondering if these are really the same items you are showing. Is there any chance you/CW could list the sources you use for your planting needs and what you are actually planting. That way those of us who are CW followers can plant the same produce and see what results we have vs. your results.
    Your temperature this moring of 39 degrees matched what we had in Chicago. We felt warm.
    Stay warm,
    Chris

    • My dear Christine,

      As the injustices inflicted upon Virginia and all the English colonies in North America multiply we are forced by necessity as well as solidarity with our fellow patriot citizens to provide ourselves with products of our own making. I have spoken with a well-known cook here in Williamsburg who tells me a very sweet liquor can, indeed, be obtained from the pumpkin, though she would not call it a molasses. As for the distillation of pumpkin spirits, we have yet to see a pumpkin rum, but Mr. Carter of Sabine Hall has related a recipe perfected by his father for the making of pumpkin beer which he calls “pumperkin.” Perhaps the most common use of the pumpkin is for the feeding of livestock for which the plantation masters plant great acreages.

      We do offer a wide variety of heirloom seeds at the Colonial Garden in Williamsburg but have yet to make them available to our online visitors. The company who packs our seeds for us is Landreth Seed of Philadelphia, this country’s oldest seed house, founded in 1784. You can obtain many of the varieties we grow through them. For the harder to find vegetables and those we obtain from collectors from abroad we save our own seed.

      -Wesley Greene

  2. Dear Wesley,
    Thank you for your response. I’ll check Landreth Seed more carefully, but I did not see the corn salad and creasy greens. I admit it was a quick look. You or CW might suggest that they add a note that tells if certain seeds are grown in the CW gardens, both veggies and flowers. It might help their sales too, now that you have given their name on the blog.
    It is 2 degrees in Chicago today. Your 34 would feel down right balmy to me.
    Stay warm.
    Your humble follower,
    Chris


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