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Nature Art: Gone to Seed

Lettuce. It may be the party girl of April, all spring crispness and curly leaves, but now it's July and the party's over. We have to start lettuce in March (or even February under row covers) in the mid-Atlantic region. Our 90 degree days, some even in May, guarantee that lettuce will bolt by mid-June.

But is that a bad thing?

I know, I know, lettuce sending up flowers instead of new leaves is a sign of a garden (and a gardener) gone wrong. After all, the lettuce leaves from a flowering plant will be bitter, inedible. And then the comments: "If it's too hot for lettuce, just plant basil and be done with it." Or, " Ornamental flowers? Haven't you heard of petunas?"

But I leave the bolted lettuce for a bit longer. In the photo, above, the arugula flowers the largest, a creamy white cross, and the mustard flowers tiny, acidic yellow puffs. Mache flowers white, like tiny alyssum blossoms on a periscope of a stem. I didn't plant iceberg lettuce, so I don't know what flowers it might have had. Bees love the four-petaled blossoms, and attracting bees will help pollinate other crops in your garden. And some bolted broccolis are actually ornamental. Barbara Damrosch, in her Washington Post column "A Cook's Garden," tells of planting a cabbage called "Happy Rich," a cross between Chinese and western broccoli. She let it go to seed and it bore clouds of lush, snow-white blooms.

This wasn't my week to paint pale flowers in watercolor! Here, instead, is a botanical drawing of bolted lettuce from 1757. Drawn by Elizabeth Blackwell, one of the most famous 18 century botanical illustrators, her Herbarium was so successful that it supported her family for two years while her husband was in a London prison...or so the story goes.


Set aside a corner of your garden for the unusual! Let your lettuce bolt!

-- Sue Fierston paints and teaches just outside of Washington, D.C. in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. As a painter, she works in acrylics and watercolor and is in the middle of a series called "100 Flowers." As a teaching artist, she works with teachers to bring art into their classrooms in grades 4-8. Her posts focus on her nature-themed art collaborations. For a look at her paintings or more about her teaching, check out her website at suzannefierston.com.

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