Good Lettuce Gone Bad: Bolting and Flowering

April 24, 2008

You planted lettuce seed with visions of harvesting beautiful heads of sweet and tasty heirloom lettuce, but almost overnight the plants began stretching for the clouds and turned bitter… a familiar tale of a gardener’s grief:

“Please help I planted romaine lettuce with no knowledge of what I was doing. The plants have not died instead they have long stems and flowers. I do not like to throw away any plant that is alive yet I do not know what to do with them?” – Olga

Lettuce PlantWhen lettuce bolts and runs to seed long before the plants mature it’s usually a sign that the plants were stressed in some manner. That’s not uncommon and can be the result of drought, high temperatures, overcrowding, or other unfavorable growing conditions.

A Plant’s Prime Objective; Be Fruitful and Multiply

The plant’s ultimate goal is to produce offspring and if it senses a threat to achieving that objective the response is often to speed up maturity in an attempt to bear seed before it is too late. In this case the romaine lettuce couldn’t produce a lush head of edible leaves for whatever reason, and instead it ran to seed prematurely.

I’ve noticed vegetable seedlings the size of transplants that were deprived and stressed to the point that they sent up a seed stalk and flowered right in their cell-paks on the shelves of the greenhouse. Once the plants reach that stage and switch to seed production mode there is really no way to turn back or fix the problems.

All you can do at that point is to chalk it up as experience. Next time around adjust the timing of your seed sowing or provide adequate space, water, nutrients, and conditions for the lettuce to grow properly. As distressing as it may be to remove a plant that is still growing, there is no shame or harm in adding the bolted plants to the compost pile where they will serve to nourish future crops.

What’s a Gardener to do with Bolted Romaine Lettuce?

Here are your options for dealing with those lettuce plants that have developed a stalk, flowered, and gone to seed in the garden:

  • Let the lettuce continue growing – not awfully attractive but maybe the flowers will help attract and support some populations of beneficial insects.
  • Produce a crop of lettuce seed – not recommended, as future generations from the seed may show an inherited tendency bolt and run to seed too quickly.

  • Add the plants to the compost pile – just make sure the seeds haven’t matured or you might just be setting yourself up for weedy lettuce volunteers in the future.

  • Or you can always eat the lettuce – it’s bound to be bitter and not the best tasting romaine around, but the leaves and even the tiny yellow flowers are still edible.

My choice would be to remove the bolted romaine lettuce plants from the garden, add them to the compost pile, and to try planting again for fall, or better yet early next spring. When I’ve experienced bolting lettuce in the garden it’s usually been the result of poor timing and forcing the lettuce mature when it was just too hot outside.

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  • So now I know why it is near to impossible to grow lettuce in Namibia. It is either hot or very cold but mostly hot and dry. Winters are too short with the odd freezing that kills whatever grows. sigh. Well I will now forget about fresh sweet lettuce.
    Going to read on, maybe there is something else to plant

  • Kenny Point

    Eurica, there are some specific lettuce varieties that are better suited for growing during the summer months or in warmer climates. But I would rather try other leafy greens like mustard, collards, kale and Swiss Chard that handle the temperature extremes a lot easier.

  • Very very good post. Clear, concise, and great help to the gardener who wonders why he gets a flower spike instead of a head of cabbage. Out here in California, it may seem all sunny and fabulous, but the winter garden is tough for us. Very often we get a few days of very warm weather in the middle of January, and off it sends all of my cold-lovin’ veggies into reproduction mode. Good for them and the bees – not so good for me!

  • malabar spinach (not a spinach) is good for the heat. Here is a list of supposedly heat tolerant lettuce varieties found from some research online:
    New Red Fire
    Bronze Arrow
    Green Towers
    Rouge de Grenoblouse

  • Also, If something is still making leaves but is too bitter, it goes to the rabbits to get turned into fertilizer.

  • Jimmy

    When your leaves are bitter and you still want to use the plant, use it as you would any bitter green in recipes. You might find(as I did) this sometimes is a great alternative to some of your more common bitter greens in recipes. Use it in place of frisee or escarole. Prepare it as you would broccoli rabe with a quick blanch and a sautee. It is not trash at this point just needs to be treated differently in the kitchen.

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  • Thank you – I did a search to find out why I had some bolting lettuce in my garden so soon, and this helped me to understand WHY the plant does what it does. In this case I think it probably had to do with a recent temperature rise we’ve had this fall. But I’m happy to understand the reasons behind early bolting now.

  • Charles of Perth

    I don’t mind the younger Romaine leaves of bolted plants. Still taste good, to me, in salads etc. If you have chickens they will love the entire plant though. They’ll really be happy to get it.

    Malabar spinach….just trying to grow some myself. Starting off well and it is hot enough….LOL…41 C (106 F) yesterday here and almost as warm today…

  • Tiger

    Helped a great deal. Here in FL. the cold came early and has stayed. Small 4 X 4 garden was doing great ’til the temp became eratic. – Thought maybe I over fertilized. Still letting some flower (for the birds or the bees =) ) for seeds but reading here it may do as the parent and branch early. Cold in Tampa..

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  • If it’s just starting to bolt – to tough and bitter to eat in a salad, but not too tough and bitter – one can stir-fry it, much like you’d do bok choy; some people also chop it into the soup (adding just before finishing cooking, not boiling it for too long of course). The stems (and yes, lettuce plants do have tall thick stems when they bolt), if not too tough yet, can be sliced and stir-fried as well; to me it tastes a little bit like potato.

    In China actually they have a variety of lettuce called woju which is grown primarily for its fat stem, to be stir-fried!

  • Lorraine

    Great the weather here in vancouver is cold and rainy so I know :-)i over croweded the plants does that go for herbs too like chives and basil ?

  • Kenny Point

    Lorraine, herbs usually do better and chives tolerate unfavorable conditions without “going bad.” Basil loves the heat but can get leggy if you don’t continue to pinch the tips out as the plant grows.

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