What’s the difference between Butter, Boston and Bibb lettuce? Why do these varieties all look the same? Why do recipes and food guides use their names interchangeably? If you have asked any of these questions, you’re not alone. Many consumers today find the naming scheme of this variety very confusing.
The fact is, with its appearance, texture and taste nearly indistinguishable, Butter, Boston and Bibb lettuce is ostensibly the same variety known under the category moniker: Butterhead. Bibb, however, is a slightly smaller version of the variety and is the first of this cultivar to be grown in the U.S.
To understand the nomenclature and how these varieties became co-mingled, let’s briefly examine the history of lettuce through the ages. Lettuce originated in Egypt, with some of the earliest recordings of this vegetable dating back to 2680 B.C. The vegetable then spread to Greece, Rome and later throughout Europe.
There are three main types of lettuce that we know of today.
- Head lettuce – This comprises Crisphead, more commonly known as Iceberg, named for the way it was transported on ice in the early 1920s, and Butterhead. This variety most resembles cabbage for its lighter green leaves and tightly formed heads.
- Romaine or Cos — This is named for its darker green leaves and elongated heads. Romaine lettuce was first grown in the Papal gardens in Rome, giving this variety its present day name of Romaine. The Greeks called this variety Cos from the Greek Island of Kos where it was grown.
- Leaf lettuce — This is known for its very loosely formed heads, often grown in rich shades of green, reddish purple and/or a combination of the two.
These three main categories have been formally acknowledged in horticulture since the late 1500s, when Joachim Camerarius published one of the earliest herbals. Between 1586 and the early 18th century many of the basic types of heirloom lettuces that we know of today began to advance in France, Italy, and Holland.
Lettuce seeds were later brought to the U.S., where they continued to evolve and progress. However, seedsmen did not record lettuce seeds as well as other vegetables, so it has been difficult to distinguish the histories of some of the most popular varieties today. This fact has added to the confusion of the Butterhead variety.
Bibb lettuce is believed to have originated in Frankfort, Kentucky between 1865 and 1870 by Major John “Jack” Bibb, an amateur horticulturist who grew this variety in a greenhouse in his yard. Around 1870, he began sharing his variety with the town’s people who coined it Bibb’s lettuce. Thirty-five years later, the lettuce was cultivated conventionally and began to gain widespread popularity, especially during the 1950s. Later, around 1980, this lettuce began to gain favor as a preferred variety for hydroponic greenhouse growers.
Modern day Butter lettuce, like ours, seems to have originated from the old lettuce known as Silesia. This variety dates as far back as 1744, when an 18th century work called Adam’s Luxury and Eve’s Cookery published a list of lettuce varieties, including this one. It didn’t receive its modern Butter lettuce name until much later, when a company called Slazers began selling it by the deceptive name German Butter lettuce, denoting it was a new variety to increase its sales.
While it’s difficult to corroborate the accuracy of these historical accounts as they apply to modern day Butterhead lettuce, we can say for certain that Butter, Boston and Bibb lettuce can be used interchangeably, given their similar textures and flavor profiles. We also know that given its smooth, tender, yet strong leaves, and mildly sweet flavor, Butterhead lettuce is an ideal ingredient for almost any meal, including salads, sandwiches, soups, smoothies and wraps. And, unlike Iceberg, it’s packed with essential nutrients and vitamins, particularly A, C and K.
At Hollandia Produce, all of our living butter lettuce products, including our certified organic brand known as Grower Pete’s, are hydroponically greenhouse-grown. This method allows us to maintain a clean growing environment and minimize external factors that could otherwise affect our crops. Additionally, our products are Non-GMO Project Verified and free of pesticide residue and field debris, and packaged in clear, plastic, protective shells that function as mini greenhouses. We also package our lettuce with their roots still attached. This ensures our butter lettuce products stay fresher, longer than other varieties.
Whether you call it, Butter, Boston or Bibb lettuce, we encourage you to pick up some today, and tell us how you enjoy this versatile variety!