The man who made a red salad in space
The main hurdle is making sure that bacteria and fungi don’t colonize the food grown there, causing the crew to get sick.
Lettuce proves to be a good candidate to circumvent this, and its creator could never have imagined the spatial fate of its creation.
Frank Morton was returning from an event for plant breeders (for breeding) and chefs when a friend looked at her cell phone and said, “Look, they planted lettuce on the International Space Station.”
Frank Morton has become a reference for the American lettuce luring chefs to his farm – Image: Getty Images / via BBC
He asked what kind, but this information was not available at the time.
After a while, Morton came across a photo of the lettuce in question, printed in a magazine. He knew exactly what lettuce was, after all, it was his own invention: a vegetable he would juggle and call it Outredgeous.
The seeds of this lettuce began to be sold to gardeners, and there were also researchers from the US space agency NASA.
Morton is considered a pioneer in the cultivation of lettuce, and the organic farm he runs with his wife Karen in Oregon has become a destination for chefs and lettuce lovers.
He’s been in the factory handling business for nearly 40 years and has created Outredgeous for 12 years.
In 1981, as a novice farmer, Morton began growing two types of lettuce: red romaine lettuce and crisp green lettuce, commonly used in salads. Plant some seeds and keep them for the next year.
From about 200 seedlings planted in one part of the land, a green lettuce seed surprisingly appeared.
“In the middle was a red lettuce,” says Frank Morton.
Suppose there was an automatic cross between the two types, and in the following year more crosses were made, a great variety of shapes and colors arrived.
Like the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel, whose experiments on peas were a harbinger of modern genetics, Frank began to deduce how the characteristics of the plant were inherited: red was dominant over green; Wrinkled paper also prevailed.
Morton was surprised. It seemed to him that the creation of new plants and varieties was a promising financial path, and at the same time, it aroused great curiosity in him.
Projects to grow plants in greenhouses on Mars soil are being studied – Image: NASA
“Something lit up in my mind at that moment,” he says. “From lettuce, I started exploring other plants, like quinoa and pepper. I fell in love with it.”
However, the magic of lettuce remained. In parallel with other projects, Morton is creating more and more red seedlings.
“I was digging into how to make red lettuce,” he recalls.
If you have a red plant, you will cross it with another plant in hopes of getting a stronger color. At that time, lettuce was more monochromatic than it is today, and was often green, so when the lettuce appeared, the lettuce was quite unusual.
“It was so red that most gardeners didn’t recognize it as lettuce. They thought it was a type of beet,” Morton says. “It was amazing how red it was. That is why I called it that (the word terrible, from which it inspired me, means, in English, something like shock).
Morton offered Outredgeous seeds for sale through Johnny’s Selected Seeds, a Maine-based seed company.
When he learned of the plant’s arrival at the space station, he called the NASA team and discovered, in fact, that they had purchased its seeds.
Frank recalls speaking with NASA researchers: “They said Outredgeous had much less microbial growth on the leaf surface.”
This was a huge advantage over other tested vegetables, such as watercress and turnip, which were shown to be quite susceptible to microorganisms.
Video: Chef finds snake inside lettuce in Catalan
New adventures with lettuce
After his career in space, Morton continues to work on several other projects. He is particularly fascinated by the potential of the humble iceberg lettuce.
“They don’t have a lot of flavor and are hard to handle, but they do have an interesting ‘crunch’.”
Frank Morton studies how to make it more attractive in terms of taste and appearance.
“I try to make the lettuce bright red on the outside and pink on the inside. I must say I already have some really good lettuce.”