Plants respond to stress just like humans. Bolting is one way that plants signal distress. When a plant bolts, it means that it is growing rapidly and bolting up to its flowering stage.
Bolting is how a plant protects its own survival by going to seed to secure the next generation.
Many things can stress a plant, including a change in weather, a lack of space to reach full maturity or even a lack of nutrients in the soil.
Below, I unpack the essentials of bolting and how to handle lettuce plants if they begin to bolt.
Table of Contents
- Why Does Lettuce Bolt?
- How to Identify Bolting Lettuce?
- Can I Eat Bolting Lettuce?
- Two of My Favorite Ways to Enjoy Bolted Lettuce
- What To Do When Lettuce Bolts?
- How to Prevent Lettuce Plants from Bolting?
Why Does Lettuce Bolt?
The most common reason for lettuce bolting is when the plant experiences a rapid temperature change. Lettuce needs cool weather to grow and develop properly, but lettuce plants will bolt if exposed to temperatures that are too high.
If temperatures remain above 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27 Celsius) for more than a few days, the plant may start bolting as a response to the stress. Another common cause is when lettuce plants are in a crowded space, causing them to bolt due to lack of space or resources. Finally, lettuce can also bolt if it is not getting enough water or nutrients from the soil.
How to Identify Bolting Lettuce?
When lettuce bolts, it can be easy to identify. The lettuce plant will start to look stretched out and tall as the stem grows rapidly in an effort to reach maturity as quickly as possible. You may see small yellow flowers growing at the top of the lettuce plant.
Bolting lettuce also may produce a white sap at its base. This is especially true of bolting romaine lettuce. As lettuce plants reach the end of their lifecycle they release this sticky, milk-like substance known as lactucarium, which comes from the Latin word for milk: lactus. An interesting fact is that the botanical name for lettuce, lactuca, actually comes from the word lactus.
Can I Eat Bolting Lettuce?
One of the most frequently asked questions I get asked is about whether or not it is safe to eat bolting lettuce. In most cases, lettuce that has bolted is still safe to eat. The lettuce will usually taste bitter, so it’s best to use this lettuce in salads or as an ingredient in cooked dishes like soups, pasta, or sandwiches.
It’s important to remember that when lettuce bolts, it means the plant is going through a natural process of maturing and seed production. As long as there are no signs of disease or pests, bolting lettuce may be eaten safely.
Two of My Favorite Ways to Enjoy Bolted Lettuce
Basic Bolted Lettuce Salad
Ingredients you’ll need:
- 4 cups lettuce, chopped and washed
- 1/4 cup sliced red onions
- 1/2 cup shredded carrots
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- Salt and pepper to taste
- In a large bowl, combine lettuce, onions, and carrots.
- Whisk together olive oil and balsamic vinegar in a small bowl.
Honey Garlic Bolted Salad
Ingredients you’ll need:
- 2 cups lettuce, washed and chopped
- 1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
- 1/4 cup sliced almonds
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- In a large bowl, combine lettuce, tomatoes, and almonds.
- Whisk together olive oil, honey, and garlic powder in a small bowl.
What To Do When Lettuce Bolts?
Remember, the main reason lettuce bolts is because it is reaching the end of its life. Don’t fret or get discouraged by this natural process. Plants exist for many reasons, including reproduction, which is precisely what happens when lettuce bolts.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when faced with bolting lettuce in your garden.
- Remove the lettuce from the garden and replace it with a new plant that will thrive in the current conditions.
- Don’t remove lettuce plants by forcefully pulling on them. Instead, cut them to the base so that you don’t disrupt the entire garden.
- Harvest a few leaves and give them a nibble. How do they taste? If they are too bitter or the texture is rubbery, they are probably not edible. However, I like the bitter taste of bolted lettuce leaves in a salad. It is all about your personal preference.
- If you didn’t get a chance to harvest the lettuce heads before they bolted, you can still use them for compost or mulch around other plants in your garden. Using them this way will help return valuable nutrients back into the soil for other plants to use.
- You can also choose to leave bolting lettuce in your garden. As it bolts, it will develop a load of beautiful flowers that will draw beneficial pollinators to your garden to enjoy!
- Once the flower heads become dry and fluffy, harvest the seeds. Place a mesh bag around the flower head to protect the seeds from falling off. Cut the plant at the soil level and hang it upside down in a dry and cool place until completely dry. After this, gently shake the plant over a clean bucket to collect the seeds. Store them in a paper bag or mason jar in a cool and dark place.
How to Prevent Lettuce Plants from Bolting?
To get the best flavor out of your lettuce crop, harvest lettuce before it has a chance to bolt. You can identify lettuce bolting before the process is complete and take action to save and enjoy your lettuce plants.
Here are some things to take into consideration to help prevent your lettuce from bolting:
- Have a garden plan: When planning your garden, remember that lettuce needs 45 days of temperatures below 75 degrees to thrive
- Choose the right plants: When it comes to greens, choosing the right ones for your climate can make all the difference in the world. If you have consistent temperatures above 80 degrees, other greens will perform better than lettuce. Try planting Malabar spinach or arugula instead. These plants are not as picky about cooler temperatures as lettuce.
- Provide shade: If temperatures get above 80 degrees, leafy greens beg for shade, especially in the afternoon. Try planting some taller plants next to your lettuce for natural shade or provide a light shade cloth that is rated to block 30 to 60 percent of rays. Not only will a shade cloth help trick lettuce plants into thinking it is the ideal growing conditions, but it will also help retain moisture and keep the soil cooler.
- Consider water: It is customary to water garden plants deeply once a week. However, this is not the best watering schedule for lettuce. Try watering a little bit each day, and use a soaker hose or drip system to deliver a little water consistently to plants. Watering like this helps to keep lettuce plants cool and prevents bolting.
- Don’t overcrowd: When you plant your lettuce, always consider how large the plant will be at maturity and allow adequate space. Most lettuce requires 6 to 18 inches of space, depending on the variety. Check your planting tags and stick to the recommended spacing for best results.
- Harvest early: As the season changes and temperatures get warmer, lettuce will start to bolt. To prolong the life of your lettuce plants, harvest the outer plant leaves frequently.
By understanding lettuce bolting, you’ll be able to keep your lettuce healthy and produce a delicious harvest. But, if your lettuce does bolt, remember, you have options. No matter what you do, don’t become discouraged; just enjoy the process and the greens.