"Designer greens" are the rage for health-conscious Americans. These leafy mixes known as mesclun are not only low in calories and high in nutrition but also are very tasty.
History and Definition
A comparatively recent import from Provencal France is mesclun, the term for mixes of tender young lettuces and other greens. Purists and those from Provence might argue with our use of the word "mesclun" since our mesclun mixes are not grown in those warm southern fields of France and also because ours often go beyond the traditional greens. The Provencal tradition calls for chervil, arugula, lettuce and endive in precise proportions.
American mescluns may include lettuces, arugula, endives, mustards, purslane, chicory, cresses, parsleys, fennels, escarole and tender wild greens as well. Bibb, Romaine, oakleaf and crisphead lettuces, the four kinds of lettuce, often are all represented in popular mesclun blends. Lettuces are most common in the milder blends. Piquant, peppery mescluns include such things as sharp arugula, tangy mustards, spicy cresses and zesty chicory.
Mesclun may include varieties of greens that are comparatively unknown to American gardeners. Look for mizuna, a delicate, leafy green from Japan and tat-soi, another Asian green with sweet dark leaves. Cultivated French purslane, a succulent relative of our well-known garden weed, is a choice European salad ingredient that has tart, lemony leaves that are a rich source of Vitamin E plus Omega-3 fatty acids that are said to reduce the risk of heart disease.
Some eight to sixteen or more different plants may be used to meet our American tastes. Piquant and milder mixes are two main divisions of mesclun. The National Garden Bureau recommends planting piquant and milder mescluns in separate wide rows, then harvesting separately and mixing in proportions to suit the occasion, the meal and personal taste.
Even edible flowers or their petals--bachelor's buttons, calendulas, chive blossoms, marigolds, nasturtiums and violets--may be part of a mesclun mix. Mesclun seeds are blended to many tastes and appropriately called by such names as spring salad, stir-fry greens, Nicoise, piquant mix, Provencal, garnish mix and so forth. Rarely are seed packets simply labeled "mesclun."
Although the ingredients in mesclun are varied, all mescluns are noted for their tasty combinations of flavors, colors and textures. Mescluns include a rainbow of greens from light green to deep emerald, from deep reddish green to bronzy red to lime.
Lettuce (Lactuca sativa), cultivars of which are major components of mesclun seed mixes, is an annual or biennial member of the Chicorium tribe of the Compositae or daisy family. Lettuce is thought to have originated in central Asia. Lettuce has been cultivated and used as an herbal medicine as well as an edible since as early as 500 BC when it was known to be cultivated in the royal gardens of Persian monarchs. Thus, it is one of the oldest of our vegetables.
The four types of lettuce are looseleaf, cos (romaine), butterhead and crisphead. Easiest of all to grow are the looseleaf varieties which are the backbone of most mescluns. An old variety that is quite heat resistant is 'Oakleaf,' a handsome green lettuce with leaves that are distinctly like those of oaks. 'Prizehead' is a reddish-green variety known best for its crisp sweetness. 'Black Seeded Simpson' is a fast growing green leaf lettuce particularly suited to spring and fall crops.
A number of modern cultivars are descendants of the old-fashioned oakleaf variety. Red Oakleaf, a class of red leaf lettuces, will be as red as possible when grown in full sun. 'Red Sails' is a compact looseleaf lettuce known for its mild flavor and handsome reddish leaves. Another good red-green variety is 'Red Salad Bowl,' an oakleaf type that is bolt-resistant. These are a few of the better known looseleaf lettuces you may find in mesclun mixes.
Other composites commonly blended in mescluns are chicory (Chicorium intybus), which probably was originally native to Europe, and its close relative, endive (Chicorium endivia), which is thought to come from India. Best known of the chicories is the elegant radicchio with its red foliage swirled with pale green and white. Dandelion greens (Taraxacum officinale) are another likely addition to mescluns.
The family Cruciferae, also known as the mustard family, is often well represented in mescluns by watercress (Nasturtium), arugula (Eruca), kale (Brassica) and mustards (Brassica). Other well-known members of this family include cabbage, bok choy, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, radishes and turnips.
The herbs, parsley and fennel, also may be components of mesclun seed mixes. Both are representatives of the Unbelliferae or carrot family that also includes a number of other important herbs--dill, anise, caraway, chervil, lovage, coriander and angelica. The ubiquitous wildflower, Queen Anne's lace, or wild carrot, also is a member of this family. You can recognize members of this family by their umbrella-like flowers.
These are the major participants of modern American mesclun mixes. The National Garden Bureau also suggests other greens with more than a little mesclun potential. The young leaves of spinach (Spinacia oleracea) and chard (Beta vulgaris), both members of the Chenopodiaceae or goosefoot family, would bring special qualities to mescluns. Purslane (Portulaca oleracea), a member of the Portulacaceae family and best known as a garden weed, is available as refined garden cultivars and is another good addition to the mesclun mix.
Growing From Seeds, Site Planning and Preparation
Mesclun, like lettuce and its other leafy components, will grow best in soil that is rich, loamy and of good loose structure. Soils should be well draining and with a pH that is slightly acid to neutral. If the soil is heavy and loaded with clay, plant in slightly raised beds to improve drainage. Salad greens prefer a pH of 6.0 to 6.5. Although some mesclun mixes include greens that are tolerant of heat, most are crops of cool mild weather and will grow in sun to partial shade. When growing mesclun during hot weather, choose a site that is shaded from hot afternoon sun for best results, or use shade cloth to provide shade.
The lettuces and other leafy greens of mesclun are shallow rooted and so will benefit from an inch or so of fine organic fertilizer or compost worked into the top few inches of garden soil before planting. When the seeds have germinated and the true leaves are growing, an additional top or side dressing of finely textured compost or organic fertilizer will encourage vigorous growth.
An area in the vegetable garden is not the only place to grow mesclun--not by a long shot. Mesclun is not only a nutritious addition to the kitchen garden, it also is a pretty crop and so can be used in ornamental gardens as well. The leaves are in a range of green shades and the textures are varied as well.
The National Garden Bureau notes that mesclun makes a handsome addition to an herb garden either as a border or when broadcast in a well-defined area. Mesclun also grows well in containers, making the leafy blends ideal for patio or terrace plantings in tubs and other containers. Once you have grown mesclun, you will quickly appreciate its ornamental assets--let your imagination be your guide in site selection. Care for this simple but elegant short-lived crop is just as easy in ornamental beds or containers as it is in vegetable gardens.
Timing To Grow
Mesclun is certainly one of the easiest of all garden crops to grow. Sow the seeds and then begin to harvest the baby leaves in one to five weeks, depending upon the season and the temperature of air and soil. Lettuce and the other leafy greens of mesclun mixes grow swiftly, therefore you should plan to make successive plantings of the seed mixes throughout the growing season. Generally, if you plant mesclun seed mixes every ten days to two weeks from spring through fall, you will have mesclun for salads and stir-fry dishes all season long.
Seeds will germinate in cool weather, even as low as 40º F. Although the lettuces will grow at their best when temperatures are in the 60s, you can get good early growth by providing afternoon shade and constant soil moisture.
Even in regions with long cold winters, you can lengthen the growing season for mescluns to practically all year with grow lights, greenhouses, cold frames, row covers, water tunnels and other season extenders. Fresh home-grown greens in the middle of the snowy season would be a wonderful treat.
Plant mesclun seed about one to two weeks before the last frost date. Check with your local Master Gardeners or Extension Agents to see what that date is in your region. Another way to know when it is time to sow the seeds of semihardy mescluns is to monitor the soil temperature. When the soil temperature at a depth of two to three inches is between 32 and 40º F, you can plant mesclun seed as well as spinach, cabbage, carrots and radishes. Salad gardens are tough! Keep the mesclun bed moist but not soggy.
Mesclun seed packets say that the seed will germinate in six to fourteen days. That would be under cool soil conditions because the seeds will germinate in only three to four days when sown in the late summer in the Midwest when day temperatures are about 85º F and night temperatures are about 65º F. If night temperatures are 80º F or above do not sow mesclun seed. It is too hot for germination. Wait until day and night temperatures decline.
Make sure that soil is moist before sowing seeds. If sowing in rows, make a furrow 1/4 inch deep, sow seed, then cover furrow. If you sow wide rows or areas, simply scatter the seeds, then cover them with about 1/4-inch fine soil or compost. Keep seeded areas moist.
One final word on sowing mesclun mixes: Since many mescluns are a blend of several kinds of seeds, be sure to gently shake the seed package to mix the seeds. Otherwise, your greens might grow in slightly segregated fashion.
Since mesclun is harvested when the leaves are small, young and tender, soil preparation prior to sowing seed is perhaps the most important factor for this tasty crop. A constant supply of soil moisture is extremely important when growing salad crops, including mesclun mixes. It is very important to time supplemental waterings so that the soil stays constantly moist but not soggy.
Mesclun greens will not be at their tender and tasty best if they are subjected to wet soil/dry soil extremes. Soil extremes encourage bolting and bitterness as lettuces begin to mature. These extremes also discourage the rapid growth that is a key to taste and texture in leafy crops.
Since harvest takes place when the plants are young, small and tender, you do not have to thin crowded seedlings as you might when growing lettuces and other greens in the usual way. Instead, begin cutting the leaves as soon as the plants are about two inches tall.
Mesclun is at its crispy peak when picked early in the morning before the sun is strong. Heat causes the leafy plants to wilt. If you must harvest mesclun during the heat of the day, be sure to allow time to crisp the leaves in cool water before serving.
Use scissors to harvest mesclun greens, beginning when they are only a couple of inches high and never let it get more than six inches tall. When you do this, the crop will continue to grow. Cut-and-come-again crops like mesclun and leaf lettuces are rare. Mesclun will make an attractive border to a perennial bed and, if you harvest with scissors rather than pulling the plants, they will regrow quickly. Cut leaves just above the growing crowns. Since some of the greens grow more quickly than others, the exact proportions of your mesclun salads will vary from harvest to harvest. Also harvest the mild and piquant mescluns separately. Blend according to taste in the kitchen or even at the table.
While mescluns are best suited to cool weather, they can be kept growing during hot summer weather by frequent planting and prompt harvest. The hotter it is, the more shade should be provided, especially in the afternoon when the heat is at its maximum.
To enjoy long harvests with each crop of mesclun, be sure to keep it cut and watered. Planting a crop of mesclun every ten days to two weeks also will extend the season. For gardeners who live in areas that have cold winters, an easy way to lengthen the harvest season in both spring and fall is to grow early and late mesclun crops in cold frames or with row covers.
Once mesclun is harvested, rinse the leaves in cool water to remove any dust or dirt. Then examine the greens for weeds or interlopers and drain on towels or pat dry. If you spin-dry the greens, be sure to use them immediately since this process bruises the leaves and they will go limp quickly. Mesclun and other greens are best when used right away. If you can't serve mesclun at once, wrap the leaves gently in slightly damp towels, seal in a plastic bag and place in the refrigerator. If carefully handled and stored properly, greens should stay tasty and fresh for several days. If recently harvested mesclun becomes slightly wilted, it will take up moisture and revive in cool water. Crisping will take ten to fifteen minutes.
The taste of mesclun will depend upon the mix of plants in the blend since mesclun is, in a sense, a salad stew that may include the mildest of lettuces as well as the most peppery of cresses. Indeed, it is possible for each mouthful of mesclun to have a different taste. Mesclun textures will be tender and smooth to slightly crunchy.
Many gardeners choose to pick mesclun just before they eat, serving it simply with only a bit of light vinaigrette dressing. Harvested while still very young, the small leaves combine with simple salad dressing to make scrumptious summer salads. When stir-fried or wilted in a bit of butter or hot oil, mesclun makes a delicious addition to fresh vegetable dishes or pastas. Mesclun is a treat for the eye as well as the palate. The colors reach through all shades of green to reddish greens and bronzes. Textures may be soft and rounded or crackling with sharp, serrated edges. Leaf forms range from simple and entire to all degrees of cutleaf shapes and even fernlike growth.
Mesclun originated in the south of France. The name derives from the Nicois word mesclumo (a mixture). The traditional mixture includes various kinds of both wild and cultivated endive (chicory), lamb's lettuce and dandelion. Arugula, groundsel, chervil, salsify, purslane, oak leaf lettuce and other greens also might be included. The French season their mesclun with vinaigrette made of olive oil and flavored with fines herbes, garlic and even anchovies, according to Jenifer Harvey Lang in her Larousse Gastronomique.
Most Americans prefer using mild light dressings on mescluns so as not to hide the delicate flavors of the greens. Some seed houses mix the seeds according to the season rather than the flavor. Thus, there may be mesclun mixes for hot weather, for mild seasons and for cool seasons. Study the different catalogs to see which you prefer.
During warm weather when days are long, lettuce and other leafy salad plants tend to develop seed stalks, the leaves get progressively bitter and tough. The key to good mesclun is to begin to harvest when the plants are two inches tall and harvest all leaves before they get much bigger than a couple of inches. Obviously, this eliminates the problem of bolting. If plants do bolt, remove from garden.
Make successive plantings and harvest young plants. Wide-row planting and sowing small areas rather than single rows of plants also will reduce tendencies that the plants may have to bolt--the thickly growing plants shade the ground, keeping the roots cool.
Home gardeners can easily grow the healthful, tasty blends of gourmet green often called mesclun mixes. Those who buy greens do not find the same kind of nutritional quality and tasty freshness that gardeners can bring to their tables.
The National Garden Bureau reports that looseleaf lettuces, a major constituent of most mescluns, are just loaded with Vitamin A and also are high in potassium. Yet they contain a negligible number of calories. An average portion (100 grams) contains 1,900 international units of Vitamin A and 264 milligrams of potassium. A portion also contains 18 milligrams of ascorbic acid (Vitamin C).
Chicory greens, another common ingredient in mesclun seed mixes, also are low in calories and high in nutritional value. An average portion (100 grams) contains only 20 calories but has 4,000 international units of Vitamin A, 420 milligrams of potassium and 22 milligrams of ascorbic acid.
Mesclun greens also contain appreciable amounts of calcium and phosphorus. A water content of over 90 percent plus low calories and high nutritional values make mesclun a tasty salad treat that more than meets the requirements of even the most health-conscious individuals. Freshly picked mesclun will be at its tastiest and will contain the most nutrients.
Thanks to the National Garden Bureau and Barbara Perry Lawton for this article. The NGB has made 2009 the Year of Mesclun and Petunia, so go and enjoy these two great plants. Also for more information on the National Garden Bureau, please visit their web site at www.ngb.org!