Gardening

How to grow & eat celtuce: an ancient trendy vegetable

How to grow & eat celtuce: an ancient trendy vegetable thumbnail
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Celtuce is a hugely popular Asian vegetable that’s virtually unheard of in the United States. In this article, you’ll find out what celtuce is plus how to grow and eat it!  


Sometimes, vegetables are like clothes. Some are timeless classics and some are trendy and chic for a few seasons before fading back into relative obscurity. (For the record: we still love kale chips, even though they’re no longer trending.) 

Just as certain clothing styles start trending because of fashion designers and their celebrity clients, vegetables become “hot” because of celebrity chefs and the social media influencers who dine in their restaurants.

Dan Barber is pickling what? Alice Waters added what to her menu? 

Next thing you know, hundreds of restaurants around the country are scrambling in search of the same celebrity veggie and adding it to their menus.  

Celtuce: the next “hot” celebrity veggie?  

What is celtuce?

Celtuce (Lactuca sativa var. augustana or asparagina) is a giant lettuce plant. As it gets growing, it looks like a Romaine lettuce on steroids.

However, unlike Romaine and other lettuces which are grown for their leaves, celtuce is beloved for its thick, juicy, crunchy stem. Celtuce leaves are of secondary culinary importance, and are often even discarded.

Celtuce leaves are perfectly edible as well, they just taste a bit more bitter than other lettuce greens.

Why is it called “celtuce”? 

Celtuce sounds like an homage to a druid priest, but its anglo name owes to a linguistic mashup.

Someone, somewhere, at some point in history who spoke English said something like this: “Crunch, crunch, mmm. This is almost like a cross between celery and lettuce… henceforth we shall call it celtuce.”  

A giant harvest bowl stuffed full of celtuce, stems down. (Lactuca sativa var. augustana or asparagina)

A giant harvest bowl stuffed full of celtuce, stems down.

A new 1,500 year old trend 

Is celtuce about to be the next celebrity veggie on the catwalk? Perhaps so, since celebrity chefs around the country have it on their menus and universally give it rave reviews. 

However, it’s hardly a new plant, unlike other trend-setters such as kalettes, a cross between Brussels sprouts and kale. (For the record, we grow and love kalettes too.) 

Celtuce’s origins are thought to be somewhere in the Mediterranean region ~1,500 years ago. It then made its way to Asia, where it remains hugely popular today. If you ever go to Asian grocery stores, you might see celtuce sold under the names “qingsun” or “wosun.” 

How to eat celtuce 

As mentioned previously, both the leaves and stems of celtuce are edible. That means if you grow celtuce, you can enjoy both edible parts. 

How do you eat celtuce leaves? 

Celtuce leaves are just as edible as any other variety of lettuce leaf. The young leaves offer the best flavor, and are pretty much indistinguishable from other lettuce leaves if used in a salad. However, harvesting the young leaves means less photosynthesis for the plant which then means less energy goes into growing large stems. 

With our celtuce plants, we’ve noticed that the leaves — especially the older leaves — are more bitter than other lettuce varieties. This is partly due to the fact that as lettuce plants mature and start to “bolt” (e.g. reach maturity and begin to produce flowers and seeds) all lettuce takes on a more bitter flavor to make the plant less palatable to browsing herbivores and omnivores alike. 

When you harvest mature celtuce for its edible stem, you’re essentially harvesting a plant that’s just about to enter the reproductive stage, hence the more bitter leaf flavor. 

Our recommendation: Don’t harvest celtuce leaves as the plant grows. Instead leave them on the plant so it can put as much energy as possible into growing larger stems. 

The lower leaves on the celtuce plant will start to brown as the plant matures (left image). You can trim these dead/dying leaves off if you'd like since they're no longer photosynthesizing, however, you'll want to leave the green leaves on until you harvest the plant.

The lower leaves on the celtuce plant will start to brown as the plant matures (left image). You can trim these dead/dying leaves off if you’d like since they’re no longer photosynthesizing (right image). However, you’ll want to leave the green leaves on until you harvest the plant… Unless you’re just really itching for a celtuce leaf salad.

How do you eat celtuce stems? 

Celtuce stems are where the real magic is. The stems offer far more culinary versatility than lettuce leaves as well.

First, you’ve got to peel celtuce’s tough outer skin off in order to get to the good stuff. Simply use a veggie peeler or knife to shave off the fibrous outer skin. The inner stem is crunchy, juicy, and flavorful.  

When preparing celtuce, you might also find that the very bottom portions of the stem are too tough/fibrous to use. Just cut those sections off and move up the stem until you hit a section where the internal part is more suitable for use. 

Chunks of celtuce stems, trimmed up and ready to eat. How to process celtuce for eating.

Chunks of celtuce stems, trimmed up and ready to eat.

You can eat celtuce stems raw, cooked, or fermented. Use them solo or in combination with other vegetables to make pickles, stir fries, slaws, sautées, salads, and virtually anything you can imagine that requires a crisp, juicy vegetable.

Yes, celtuce stems retain their nice crispy texture when cooked — so long as you don’t boil or overcook them! 

What do celtuce stems taste like? 

Celtuce stems aren’t strongly flavored; they’re quite subtle. Celtuce tastes sweet, nutty, and very slightly bitter. Some people also describe celtuce as having a slightly smoky flavor, but we haven’t picked up on that.

Raw celtuce cut into chopsticks. Celtuce is great eaten raw or cooked.

Raw celtuce cut into chopsticks. Celtuce is great eaten raw or cooked.

Despite its name, celtuce stems don’t taste like celery, even though the texture is very similar (celtuce isn’t stringy like celery either). 

How do you store celtuce stems?

When storing celtuce in your fridge, leave the fibrous outer layer on. Let us repeat that: do not peel your celtuce stems before storing or you’ll decrease the storage life. 

You can cut the stems into smaller chunks to make them fit more easily in a bag so long as the chunks remain un-skinned, 

How long will celtuce stems store in the fridge?

Placed in a ziplock bag in your fridge’s veggie drawer, celtuce will last for at least a month. (In the picture below, ours is still in good shape after ~3 weeks of storage.) 

Storing celtuce in a refrigerator. A 5-gallon bag full of celtuce stems stored in our fridge 3 weeks after harvest. Just trim off the ends and the skin, and they're as good as the day they were harvested.

A 5-gallon bag full of celtuce stems stored in our fridge 3 weeks after harvest. Just trim off the ends and the skin, and they’re as good as the day they were harvested.

How to grow celtuce 

We’ve found celtuce to be a very low-maintenance cool weather plant in our moderate Zone 7b climate. If you’ve grown regular lettuce before, you’ll probably find celtuce quite easy to grow. 

A celtuce plant trimmed up and ready for the kitchen.

A freshly harvested celtuce plant trimmed up and ready for the kitchen.

Celtuce days to maturity

Depending on the celtuce variety you grow, the days to maturity may be anywhere between 50 days on the low end and 80 days on the upper end

When to grow celtuce  

Celtuce thrives in cool weather, so spring and fall are your target growing seasons, depending on where you live. Since we’re in Ag Zone 7b, we can grow celtuce two times each year:

  • from late winter through mid spring, and
  • late summer through early winter. 

You can also grow celtuce under low tunnels during colder months as well. However, like most lettuce varieties, celtuce can take a frost, but won’t do well in hard freezes unprotected.     

When to harvest celtuce 

If it’s your first time growing celtuce, pay careful attention to:

  • the variety you’re growing and the recommended harvest size on your seed packet (example: “harvest when plant reaches 15”); and
  • the days to maturity info on your seed packet.

This info will help you determine the ideal time to harvest your celtuce. One good way to keep track of things is to add a calendar reminder to harvest your celtuce on the day your celtuce seeds germinate.

For instance, if you plant a 60 day maturing celtuce variety on September 1, set a calendar reminder to harvest it on November 1. If it’s still not quite ready by that date, no biggie, but at least you have some idea of when you can expect to start harvesting.

Do keep in mind that fall/winter-grown celtuce (when daylight hours are decreasing) will take longer to mature than late winter/spring-grown celtuce (When daylight hours are increasing).  

At maturity/harvest size, celtuce reaches a height of 10″-20″, depending on the variety.

From garden to wok. Stir fried celtuce stems ready for the table.

From garden to wok. Stir fried celtuce stems ready for the table. You don’t have to get fancy with celtuce – let it stand on its own. Simply put it in a wok or cast iron pan on medium heat with your favorite cooking oil, then add minced garlic right at the end until browned. Season with a bit of salt or a dash of soy sauce then serve. 

Celtuce seeds: direct sow or start indoors? 

There’s no right answer for whether you should direct sow your celtuce seeds in your garden or start the seeds indoors.

If you have a good grow light system and you want to get a jump on the growing season, we recommend starting your celtuce seeds indoors, then transplanting them out when the weather allows.  


Now you know how to eat and grow celtuce! Are you going to help spread the word and turn celtuce into the next big thing, you trendsetter?

Personally, we think celtuce should enjoy enduring fame, rather than becoming a temporary fad. So we hope you’ll make celtuce a staple crop in your cool weather garden for many years to come!

KIGI,

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4 Comments

  • Reply
    Natalie Burke
    March 24, 2020 at 4:41 pm

    This was really helpful! I just harvested about 20 celtuce stems and wasn’t sure how long they would store. I shared some and put half the remaining stems in a ziplock in the fridge and am trying a soy sauce pickle for the rest. I am also going to try freezing some of the leaves to use in cooked dishes later.

    • Reply
      Aaron von Frank
      March 27, 2020 at 8:59 pm

      Glad our celtuce article was helpful, Natalie! 20 stems is a LOT of celtuce. Kudos to you for sharing that abundance. Love to hear how your celtuce pickles turn out – please check back in when you find out.

  • Reply
    Douglas R
    May 24, 2019 at 6:34 pm

    Do your ducks eat the mature leaves? Looking for more winter fodder.

    • Reply
      Aaron von Frank
      June 17, 2019 at 5:13 pm

      Hi Douglas! Yes, our ducks did eat the mature celtuce leaves, so long as they were still in good shape. They won’t eat the leaves once they start to yellow or turn brown.

      We’re thinking the same thing as you: celtuce is a great space-efficient garden plant since it grows vertically AND feeds us and our ducks. We’ll definitely be growing celtuce every spring and fall in our garden.

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