- By Veronique Greenwood
- The future of the BBC
To keep astronauts healthy in space, you need lots of green vegetables. But how to grow them safely in orbit? A husband’s salad may be the answer.
Frank Morton was sitting with a friend in New York, about to fly to Oregon after attending an event for plant breeders and chefs. “Hey, look at this,” his friend told him. “They grew lettuce on the space station.”
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She was looking at her phone, he recalls. He asks, what kind?
She did not say exactly. They both thought it was an interesting innovation.
Just a short time later Morton saw a picture of the lettuce in question in a magazine and realized he knew exactly what that lettuce was. It was his invention, a strange burgundy plant he had called Outredgeous.
The seeds of this plant could be purchased from a large catalog of seeds by both home gardeners and NASA researchers, and indeed, when Morton contacted the research team after the experience, that was exactly what they had done.
Rotating the Earth a dozen years after Morton brought it to market, Roman Outredgeous made history.
Morton is a pioneer in lettuce growing, an impresario whose gift for the weird and beautiful has made the Oregon organic farm he shares with his wife Karen a mecca for chefs and other leaf lovers.
His career in plant breeding and the path he took to grow his lettuce in space, began almost 40 years ago with an unfortunate red plant in a green sea.
In 1981, Morton had just started farming. He had originally grown two types of lettuce, one red rum and one green lettuce, a common pattern with curly leaves. When the lettuces went to seed, he saved some to plant the following year.
On a plate with about 200 green lettuce grown from these seeds, he saw something strange.
“Among all those lettuces, there was a red one,” he says.
He knew it had to be a cross between two varieties. He crossed his new plants and the following year discovered an abundance of different combinations of shapes and colors.
Like the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel, whose experiments with peas foreshadowed the modern science of genetics, he began to figure out how plant characteristics were inherited. The color red was predominant, larger than green. And the curl also goes away, which is why he saw a bowl of red salad on his first cross.
Morton was hooked. Creating plants on his farm and refining them for generations in new varieties was a promising way to support himself financially, but it also sparked a kind of deep curiosity in him about what was to come.
“Something flashed in my brain at that moment,” he says. “From there, I started exploring … Through lettuce, I met other plant friends, like quinoa and peppers. Somehow I came across those plants.”
Lettuce appeal, however, remained. Along with his other projects, Morton chose increasingly red heads.
“I wondered how red lettuce could be,” he recalls.
If he took a Russian plant, he would cross it with another, hoping to get something deeper. At the time lettuce was more monochromatic than today, it was an exclusively green club. So when Outredgeous lettuce appeared, it was an unusual find.
“It was so red that most gardeners did not recognize it as lettuce. They thought it was a kind of beet,” says Mr Morton. “It was weird how red it was. That’s why I named it.”
Mr. Morton made Outregeous seeds available to the public through Johnny’s Selected Seeds, a seed company in Maine. When he then contacted the NASA researcher, who had grown lettuce on the International Space Station, he learned that Outregeous had another unusual quality.
When scientists decided which lettuce to experiment with, they specifically looked for lettuce that would not be easy hosts for bacteria, he says.
They feared that E. coli floating around the space station colonized salads and diseased crew members, and other green vegetables, such as arugula and kale, were shown to be surprisingly hospitable to microbial hosts.
She said Outredgeous showed “significantly less microbial growth on the surface of the leaves,” he recalled their conversation. He did the deception and left traces.
Today, Morton has many selection projects at work, as always. He is particularly intrigued by the potential of the simple iceberg lettuce.
“The things you buy at the grocery store are these water bags as big as a bowling ball,” he explains. “They do not have much taste and are difficult to handle. But they have an attractive sharpness.”
What if, he imagines, there was a small, crunchy, sweet lettuce the size of a soft ball that you could cut in half at dinner and share with your partner? What if it was nicely melted or colored?
“It would be a bit like buying a rose that you can eat,” he says.
To that end, he looked at iceberg farming and started doing it.
“It’s a kind of iceberg, except it’s bright red on the outside and I try to make it bright pink on the inside,” he says. “I have very beautiful lettuce, I can say that.”
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