Mâche, Corn-salad, Lamb’s Lettuce
French, Mâche. German Feldsalat. Flemish and Dutch Koornsalad. Italian, Erba riccia. Spanish, Canonigos. Portuguese, Herva beenta.
Valerianella locusta (olitoria) & V. eriocarpa
This beautiful little plant is the star of the winter garden. It’s so cold tolerant it can withstand temperatures as low as -20°F (-29°C). I’m always surprised to see it still green and happy come January and February during our long cold winters, and regret that I hadn’t planted more.
Sow in late summer or early fall for a winter harvest of fresh greens, or sow a little later and allow it to overwinter for a fresh spring salad when most plants are only just beginning to wake. I provide scant protection under plastic and am always surprised to see it doing so well. I’m certain it would do equally fine totally uncovered or perhaps a few conifer branches as is done with spinach.
The plant is also quite small, so serve up the small rosettes in their entirety as picking the small leaves on their own can be tedious, although perfectly acceptable especially on a nice sunny day that warms the hoop house. This works quite well mixed with other greens or entirely on their own splashed with a little vinegar and oil.
While researching this I learned that the soil should be carefully smoothed and flattened before sowing. I saw this referenced in the 1895 Vilmorin manual, but without explanation. After reading what Elliot Coleman had to say, it became quite clear that it’s to aid in harvesting. To harvest use a sharp nife and carefully cut at ground level. A smooth soil will help keep the plants clean.
I’ve planted Mache for several years now but in early November 2013 I completed my 10′ x 30′ movable high tunnel, thus my plan is quite a bit more elaborate than previous years. This is what I have going on:
My first planned sowing is mid-late February directly into the hoop house (completed on Feb 15). I plan to rework the bed right around last frost in order to insert tomatoes so we shall see how well they do on such a short growing period. I have a second small sowing outdoors uncovered in mid march and plan to harvest in mid to late May.
Mache is not heat tolerant, save it for the winter.
I have four sowing’s planned. The first is outdoors into the winter bed in mid August that will be covered by the movable hoop house in early October. I worry about it not germinating well during our very hot August weather so am planning a second sowing indoors. The third sowing is planned for mid-September and the fourth in October, both outside. The last two sowing’s will be carefully performed between the other winter veggies to maximize usage of space.
The earliest I would expect to harvest would be in late October. Compared to London and Paris, my summers are hot and dry and I doubt I can get sufficient germination for an October harvest. Realistically I think harvest will be in mid-late November, just in time for a nice holiday dinner, and then continue into May.
days to transplant:
days to maturity: 47
days to mat. baby:
direct sow or trans: both
seeds per ft: 12
plants per ft: 6
row spacing in.: 4
rows per bed: 8
seeds per oz:
min germ temp: 40
optimal germ temp: 60
max germ temp: 70
min legal germ:
Market Gardening History
About the name, the word “corn” in corn-salad refers to the fact that this is a common weed found in wheat fields throughout Europe. In the old-world, the word corn refers to a “staple grain” and not the corn plant we are more familiar with here in the US. Also, in the Brother’s Grimm tale Rapunzel, we learn the true inspiration for the main character’s name, in Germany this plant is also known as “Rapunzel”.
Mache still grows wild in much of Europe and was, I have no doubt, a rare and important winter green for peasants innumerable. As a fine culinary herb however, it gained it’s reputation in the 17th century for being first cultivated and served to the king of France by Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie. He was also the designer of the French royal garden, the Potager du Roi, the worlds grandest and still operational market garden.
In my copy of the 1895 French book on market gardening, Vilmorin-Andrieux’s the Vegetable Garden (Les Plantes potagères), the author lists seven different varieties in use by market gardeners in London and Paris. Seeds were sown in late summer or fall, producing harvestable greens from October to spring and it was accomplished “without requiring any attention or protection.” Another interesting note in the book is that the first year seeds do not germinate as readily as those that are already a year old. I think I am actually going to test this out as I feel like the seed germination has been less than ideal and have read others express the same.
At the time, European market gardeners grew two different types of Mache: the round leaved types (Valerianella olitoria) and the Italian types (V. eriocarpa). The round leaved varieties were considered best for winter growing and were sown from August to October. The Italian type however were sown in October and harvest delayed until the following spring when the first type was no longer usable due to bolting. Seeds were sown by broadcasting and lightly raking in among other crops such as winter onions. Modern resources list the Latin name as V. locusta instead of olitoria.
Vilmorin lists the following varieties for the “round types”:
- Round-leaved Corn-salad,
- Large-seeded Corn-salad,
- Golden Corn-salad,
- Etampes Corn-salad,
- Cabbaging Corn-salad.
The Italian type of Corn-Salad (Valerianella eriocarpa) is native to southern Europe and thus is a little more sensitive to cold. If it were available I suspect it would do well enough under a cold frame or tunnel. Vilmorin lists two varieties:
- Lettuce-leaved Italian Corn-salad,
- and Spoon-leaved Corn-salad.
Another interesting reference to Mache is within John Gerard’s Generall Historie of Plantes published in 1597. This gives us a clue to how it was consumed by the peasantry of 16th century England. About Mache he says “This herb is cold and something moist, and not unlike in faculty and temperature to the garden lettuce, instead whereof in winter and in the first month of the spring it serves for a salad herb, and is with pleasure eaten with vinegar, salt, and oil, as other salads be, among which it is none of the worst.”
If you’re interested in growing Mache, a quick look through through the seed companies here show several named varieties available (Verte de Cambrai, Verte a Coeur Plein, Verte d’Etampes, Coquille de Louviers). A search on the internet did uncover a large seeded variety called Grosse Graines Mache available at Kitchen Garden Seeds.