A Leaf out of History

A freckled lettuce with a funny name is once again making a splash.

March 4, 2011

Heirloom tomatoes and squash seem to get all the press; leafy greens, not so much. But an Austrian heirloom lettuce that dates to 1793 deserves attention. Known today as 'Flashy Troutback', it was, in its central European heyday, called 'Forellenschuss' ("trout speckles") and widely favored for its claret-splashed, bright green leaves. Lettuce has been on our tables a long time. Its ancestors can allegedly be traced back to the kitchen gardens of ancient Mesopotamia.

The name 'Flashy Troutback' is sometimes used interchangeably with 'Freckles' in catalogs, but according to Johnny's Selected Seeds, 'Freckles' is a different variety and lacks the uniformity of 'Flashy Troutback'. Whatever its origin and character, this is a desirable lettuce to plant, for it is just as pretty in the garden as in the salad bowl.


Like most lettuce, 'Flashy Troutback' is surprisingly easy to grow, needing full sun and loose, loamy soil enriched with organic compost. Combine this reliability with its cheerful appearance—not to mention its goofy name—and 'Flashy Troutback' makes a good choice for a child's first garden. As a dwarf variety, it grows quickly, maturing in 55 days with 8-to-12-inch heads. It can also be harvested at 4 to 6 inches as baby greens.

Lettuce seeds germinate at soil temperatures as low as 35°F. From USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 7 northward, sow seeds outdoors as soon as the ground can be worked in spring—up to a month before the last expected frost. In Zone 8 and warmer, sow seeds in late winter. Sprinkle seeds thinly in rows no deeper than a quarter inch, as they need light to germinate. Seeds can also be sown in a coldframe for early-spring salads.

Gardeners in colder areas of the country may prefer to start seeds indoors in flats. Scatter the seed evenly on moistened organic seed-starting mix and cover with a thin sifting of compost. When seedlings develop their first true leaves, transfer them to small pots for planting out later. After all danger of frost, set transplants 2 inches apart in the garden. Thin the plants to 6 inches apart and use the thinnings in salads.

Lettuce requires regular, even moisture. Being a nitrogen and phosphorus lover, it performs best when given doses of a natural soluble organic fertilizer, like fish emulsion, at least once a month. 'Flashy Troutback' is heat-tolerant, but it likes shade during hot spring days, so use shade cloth, or plant in the shelter of a deciduous shrub that leafs out in late spring and so protects the lettuce from afternoon sun.

Young plants are susceptible to slugs, cutworms, rabbits, and other garden pests. Protect them from damage with floating row covers and fencing. Hand-pick and dispose of slugs, snails, and cutworms, and remove the mulch they hide in from around the plants. If aphids are a problem, attract ladybugs by spraying uncovered plants with diluted sugar water, or use an insecticidal soap to kill the aphids without harming beneficial insects.

Although 'Flashy Troutback' is slow to bolt, try to harvest mature heads before summer heat hits. The heads stay fresh for up to 10 days in the refrigerator vegetable bin. Don't store lettuce near apples, pears, or bananas, as they emit ethylene gas, which turns the lettuce brown.

Flashy Dippers
In honor of its ancestry, use the spoon-shaped leaves from mature heads of 'Flashy Troutback' as dipping tools for foods like hummus (made with chickpeas, garlic, tahini, olive oil, salt, and pepper) or baba ghannouj (roasted eggplant, lemon juice, tahini, and salt). Put the dips on a platter surrounded by baby carrots, radishes, and individual leaves of 'Flashy Troutback'.

With its mild flavor, 'Flashy Troutback' doesn't require a heavy dressing. Keep the salad simple, using only the freshest ingredients from the garden, gathered young and sweet. Green onions, radishes, and even roasted, peeled beets, which echo the wine-colored splotches of 'Flashy Troutback', are all good choices. Toss these ingredients with homemade mustard vinaigrette made by whisking together three parts organic virgin olive oil; one part vinegar, either rice, red wine, or cider; and a teaspoon of a coarse-grain or Dijon mustard. Add salt and pepper to taste. If the oil is especially good and fresh, just use it with a sprinkle of salt and grind of black pepper. Simple, elegant, and delicious.