Celtuce is a hugely popular Asian vegetable that’s virtually unheard of in the United States. Hopefully, that will change. Read on to learn what celtuce is and 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.)
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.
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 new kid on the block?
Celtuce (Lactuca sativa var. augustana or asparagina) is basically 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, “Crunch, crunch, mmm. This is almost like a cross between celery and lettuce… ergo we shall call it celtuce.”
A new 1,500 year old trend
Is celtuce about to be the next big 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
How do you eat celtuce leaves?
As mentioned previously, 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. Gotta protect the kids!
When you harvest mature celtuce for its edible stem, you’re essentially harvesting a plant that’s just about to start 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.
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 thing: 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.
You can eat celtuce stems raw or cooked. 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!
What do celtuce stems taste like?
Celtuce stems aren’t strongly flavored; they’re quite subtle. They taste sweet, nutty, and ever-so-slightly bitter. Some people also describe celtuce as having a slightly smoky flavor, but we haven’t picked up on that.
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?
We harvested far more celtuce stems than we could possibly eat, so long-term storage was necessary. We cut the stems into 5″ chunks and left the fibrous outer layer on. Let us repeat that: do not peel your stems before storing or you’ll decrease the storage life.
Placed in a ziplock bag in your fridge’s veggie drawer, celtuce will last for at least a month. (Ours is still in great shape after ~3 weeks of storage.)
Like most fruits and veggies, celtuce is mostly water. However, it does contain lots of vitamins and minerals, including:
- 11.5% of your recommended daily allowance of folate/B vitamins
- 117% Vitamin A
- 32% Vitamin C
- 11% Manganese
- 7% RDV of Magnesium, Potassium, and Iron
How to grow celtuce
We grew a nice patch of celtuce this spring and found it to be a very low-maintenance plant. If you’ve grown regular lettuce before, you’ll find celtuce quite easy to grow.
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. (So 2-3 months.)
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 – mid spring, and
- late summer – early winter.
You can also grow celtuce under low tunnels during colder months as well. However, if celtuce is like most lettuce varieties, it can take a frost, but won’t do well in hard freezes.
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 it to add a calendar reminder to harvest your celtuce on the day your celtue 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.
At maturity/harvest size, celtuce reaches a height of 10″-20″, depending on the variety.
*Keep in mind that the days are getting warmer and longer in the spring and colder and shorter in the fall, so days to actual maturity on all plants will be faster in spring than in the fall.
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 you?
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!