Unusual Salad Greens

Lettuce and spinach are salad staples, but why not try something new? Add some zing to your salads by growing these out-of-the-ordinary greens.

Fresh garden salad means much more than just lettuce or spinach these days. Why limit yourself, especially when less-familiar greens such as claytonia, orach, corn salad, and cress are so easy to grow in your home garden? With their distinctive colors and shapes, these unusual greens add flavor, visual interest, and nutritional value to otherwise ordinary salads.

As you experiment with different salad blends, you’ll figure out which varieties you and your family enjoy most, and you can use those homegrown greens to make your salads distinctive, delicious, and nutritious.

Mustard greens (Brassica juncea)
The wide range of mustard green cultivars—large and small, thick- and thin-stemmed, in colors from green to red to purple—are valued for their pungency and texture. Mustard greens are cool-weather crops best grown as early as possible in the spring and again in the fall. They will bolt and become inedible when summer temperatures arrive. The plants are easy to grow and quick to mature; the spicy flavor is best when leaves are young and tender.

Arugula (Eruca sativa)
Often sold at exorbitant prices in supermarkets or at trendy restaurants, arugula (also called rocket, roquette, or rucola) is easy for home gardeners to grow. A member of the mustard family, arugula requires cool temperatures for best production and rapidly drops in quality as the weather warms. Plant it in early spring and early autumn. It’s hardy enough to tolerate a light frost, and the late crops are often the most flavorful.

Miner's Lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata)
During the California Gold Rush, miners prevented scurvy by eating claytonia (also called miner’s lettuce or winter purslane), since the plants are high in vitamin C. Claytonia is easy to grow in cool conditions and wet soil. The plants produce clumps of heart-shaped leaves wrapped around tender stems. If harvested regularly, before flowers form, the plants readily sprout again for continued production. Claytonia is extremely hardy and can tolerate moderate frost, or can be grown year-round under cloches.

Corn salad (Valerianella locusta)
Corn salad (also called mâche, lamb’s lettuce, or fetticus) produces delicate, melt-in-your-mouth greens. It blends well with more pungent greens like arugula and mustard greens. The plants produce spoon-shaped, rounded leaves in rosettes or loose heads close to the soil. Corn salad is a cool-weather green that can tolerate some frost but is heat-sensitive, so plant it as a spring crop in colder regions and a winter crop in warm climates. Unlike most greens, corn salad never gets bitter.

Endive and escarole (Cichorium endivia)
Endive and escarole are members of the same species in the chicory genus, and differ only in leaf shape—endive produces a loose head of deeply cut, frilly-curled leaves, while escarole has broader, smoother leaves. Both have a slightly bitter, buttery flavor and unique textures. Although both can be grown in spring and fall, the fall crop is by far the better quality. In the fall, harvest individual leaves or entire heads for your fresh salads. Endive and escarole are frost-hardy and may even produce over the winter if you protect them in a cold frame.

Orach (Atriplex hortensis)
Orach (also called butter leaves or mountain spinach) is well-known in Europe but not commonly grown in the United States. It’s extremely easy to grow and tolerates even the poorest soil conditions. Sow the seeds as soon as the ground can be worked in the spring. Although the plants grow best in cool weather, the leaves do not become bitter when the plants bolt in the summer. If you continually harvest young orach leaves, you may be able to maintain the plants until frost kills them in the fall. The plants will eventually grow 5 feet tall, but harvest the leaves before the plants are 18 inches tall. Orach can become an invasive weed, so remove the plants before they set and drop seed.

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)
Treated like a weed in most of the United States and Canada, purslane is actually succulent and highly nutritious. For salads, use only the young shoots and spoon-shaped leaves—the flavor deteriorates rapidly as the plants mature and flower. Served fresh, young purslane has a slightly peppery flavor and a crunchy-chewy texture. Because the plants readily reseed and become invasive, start the seeds in a pot so the plants can be contained. Cultivated varieties, unlike wild purslane, have an upright habit and are easier to harvest.

Radicchio (Cichorium intybus)
Radicchio produces heads that are either elongated like romaine lettuce or in a tight ball like a small cabbage. The red and white leaves contrast beautifully with traditional greens, and add color, crunch, and tangy flavor to salads. Start radicchio in the spring for harvest in midsummer.

Sorrel (Rumex acetosa)
Sorrel (often called dock) produces sword-shaped leaves that add a sour, lemony flavor to fresh garden salads. Use the small leaves for salads and the larger leaves for soup. Sorrel has high levels of vitamin A, vitamin C, and potassium.

Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris)
You often find young beet greens in commercial salad mixes, but generally these leaves are far from tasty. For a fuller flavor and distinctive texture, try young Swiss chard leaves instead. Chard will grow through the spring, summer, and fall until frost. Use only the small (less than 6 inches) inner leaves raw for salads. The larger outer leaves tend to be earthier in flavor and more fibrous. During the summer months when there are few greens available, Swiss chard is a godsend!

Upland cress (Barbarea verna)
Probably the best type of cress for home gardens, upland cress is a biennial in Zones 5 through 9 and is slow to bolt. The plants produce rosettes of dark green, smooth, rounded leaves that have a peppery flavor similar to nasturtium leaves. Upland cress tolerates extremes in temperature far better than traditional garden cress. For extended production, this cress can’t be beat. The more you harvest, the faster new, tender leaves grow back.

Garden cress (Lepidium sativum)
Garden cress (also called curly cress) is the easiest and fastest cress to grow. You’ll have harvestable leaves within two or three weeks of sowing. The leaves add a crisp texture and sweet peppery flavor to salads. However, the leaves rapidly become bitter and inedible when hot weather arrives, so plan on early spring and fall crops. Cress is a great cut-and-come-again crop. Begin cutting the tender tips when the plants are about 3 inches tall, and the plants will readily regrow.

Watercress (Nasturtium officinale)
In the wild, watercress prefers shady wooded areas on banks near running water. The plants are easy to grow, but they do require special attention. Start the seeds in moist soil in a small pot. When the plants emerge and start to grow, place the pot in a watertight container and fill the container with clean water until it reaches the lip of the pot. Change the water often as the plants mature. You can also grow watercress near an outside natural pool, if the water is routinely aerated. For use in your salads, snip off the tips of the plants with scissors until the watercress starts flowering.

Of course, there are other salad greens you can try, including Malabar spinach, New Zealand spinach, Belgian endive (also called Witloof chicory), minutina, salad burnet, certain varieties of amaranth, and many types of Asian greens. There are even common weeds that taste great in salads, notably lamb’s quarters, young dandelion leaves, and wild purslane. Don’t limit your salads to the familiar lettuce and spinach. Liven them up with mixtures selected from unusual—and delicious—greens that you can grow in your own garden.