Can bitter lettuce make you sick? A good question, because when the weather gets too hot for lettuce – temperatures that are consistently above eighty degrees Fahrenheit – it bolts. That is, it grows a very tall stem which produces flowers (lettuce with yellow flowers is going to have bitter-tasting leaves), and subsequently, seeds.
The conventional thing people do at that point is tear the lettuce plant out from the roots and toss it to the ground, or add it to their compost pile. But the answer to the question, “Is bitter lettuce safe to eat?” is, for probably at least 99% of people, yes!
So unless you are desperate for fresh plants to add to your compost, there are other uses for lettuce that is bolting that will extend their culinary usability. Following are four.
**1. Continue to harvest the leaves for salads.
Most people turn up their noses at lettuce once it bolts, because the flavor turns bitter. However, the leaves can still be used in small amounts mixed in with sweeter vegetables in salads. In fact, some traditional cuisines are intentional about making sure the five flavors – sweet, salty, bitter, sour, spicy – are present at each meal. Bolting lettuce is perfect to provide a little bitterness.
**2. Use it in green smoothies.
While bolting lettuce is bitter, if you are used to mixing some of the stronger greens – such as kale, dandelion or cabbage – into your smoothies, bitter lettuce is actually much milder when blended with fruit and nuts or any kind of milk, sweet or fermented. I have even been blending part of the thick stems in, and they don’t seem to affect the smoothie flavor any more than the bitter leaves do.
**3. Add the leaves to soup.
If you fix a hot soup, add a few shredded leaves to it just at serving time. It will immediately wilt, making the leaves soft and tender, and add its nutrient content to the meal.
**4. Let it go to seed.
Saving seeds is a lost art that many gardeners are reclaiming. However, many more still ignore the skill and spend unnecessary money every year on seed packets.
Lettuce is an easy plant from which to collect seeds. Let it flower, then after a few days the yellow blossoms will turn into white puffs, as dandelions do. (Did you know that lettuce is like a cousin-once-removed relative of dandelion? It actually comes from wild lettuce, a weed similar to prickly lettuce.).
At that point, you have two choices. You can pick the puffs from the plants and store them in envelopes or plastic bags. Or, you can let nature reseed the lettuce by allowing the wind to blow the seeds where they will. If you don’t have too thick of a mulch cover on the ground, many of the lettuce seeds will land around the current lettuce crops and germinate without any help from you when the weather once again becomes right for lettuce growing.
What about cross-pollination?
I have heard that you’re only supposed to let one variety of lettuce go to seed at a time because cross-pollination can occur, but other sources say that the only cross-pollination danger is with wild lettuce, i.e., prickly lettuce (which I do have growing just inside and outside my garden, but about thirty feet away from the lettuce bed). I don’t worry about it; I just let them go to seed, drop to the ground, and get a never-ending crop of lettuce that I never again have to plant.
Of course, when the seeds are all collected or scattered you want to remove the plants and add them to your compost pile.
But as you can see, there are several other things you can do with bolting lettuce before that happens! Can you eat bolted lettuce? Now you know.
P.S. – If you enjoyed this article, you may be interested in my book How To Grow Vegetables Without Losing Your Mind.