Ark of Taste
Hanson Lettuce, a variety of Curled India lettuce, was imported into Maryland in 1800 and there improved by the Hanson family. In 1870 Colonel George Hanson conveyed the lettuce seed to the Henry Dreer Seed Company of Philadelphia, which made it a nationally significant variety. Here is how George Hansen described the lettuce himself: “this lettuce is superior in every respect to any lettuce I ever saw, for these reasons: the heads are the largest, a single one is frequently large enough for an ordinary sized family; the leaves are exceedingly crisp and tender, and (if cut early in the morning) seem to break like pipe stems; the color is of the most beautiful green without, and white within, and is entirely free from that peculiar grassy taste found in some varieties.”
Indeed its quality drove the salad revolution of the last decades of the 19th century, it was a major market lettuce grown in the United States. Yet its tenderness—a plus for palatability—became a minus for transportation, and the Hanson was supplanted as a market variety in the 1910s. Besides that, it was not so heat tolerant as other varieties. So it was almost exclusively grown in the upper south, the Midwest, and California. It declined in importance with each decade of the 20th century until it became a variety cherished only by heirloom gardeners.
The Hanson has long been supplanted in southern fields by varieties that require less maintenance, have quicker growing cycles, and enjoy greater disease resistance. Numbers of the popular heading lettuce varieties—Ithaca, Summertime, Nevada—were developed out of the Hanson by vegetable breeders. The Hanson’s taste and size, however, inspired a small group of devotees who have kept it in the stock of heirloom seed companies. It belongs to that category of “At Risk” plants who’s germ plasm is exchanged and sold among seed savers and home gardeners, but that has undergone no improvement in a century or more.