Butterhead (Buttercrunch) Lettuce Plant Profile

Buttercrunch Lettuce

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Although the names "butterhead" and "buttercrunch" are sometimes used interchangeably, 'buttercrunch' is actually one variety that fits in the larger category known as butterhead lettuces. These lettuces feature small, loosely formed leaf heads and a notably smooth flavor. In most ways, butterhead and buttercrunch are identical plants, though the buttercrunch variety is known to be somewhat more tolerant of heat.

As far as leaf lettuce varieties go, these lettuces set the standard for melt-in-your-mouth flavor and texture. Seeds are quick to germinate, plants are slow to bolt, and the taste is sweet, mild, and complex. Gardeners looking to get into vegetable gardening for the first time couldn't choose an easier or more productive plant to get into the hobby, as butterhead lettuce tolerates a wide variety of growing conditions, and continue to grow new leaves as you harvest.

Butterhead lettuce (Lactuca sativa var. capitata), including the buttercrunch variety, form loose but distinct heads. Both Boston lettuce and Bibb lettuce are also considered forms of butterhead. Boston lettuce has a small, round, looser head, while Bibb lettuce has as a tighter, smaller, fist-sized head.

Butterhead lettuce takes about 45 days to mature from seed. It is normally planted in the spring, and sometimes again in the early fall for harvest in late fall or early winter.

Botanical Name Lactuca sativa var. capitata
Common Name Butterhead lettuce, buttercrunch lettuce
Plant Type Annual vegetable
Mature Size 915 in. tall
Sun Exposure Full sun to part shade
Soil Type Average to rich
Soil pH Slightly acidic to neutral ( 6.07.0)
Hardiness Zones 211 (USDA); grown as annual in all zones
Native Area Mediterranean basin
Toxicity Non-toxic
Harvesting Buttercrunch Lettuce
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Mature Buttercrunch Lettuce
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Head of Buttercrunch Lettuce
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How to Plant Butterhead Lettuce

Butterhead lettuce is a low-maintenance vegetable that rewards gardeners with mature plants in two months' time. It's a good space filler in the garden while you wait for the weather to warm up for summer staples such as tomatoes and peppers. You can also grow a row of attractive butterhead lettuce plants at the front of the spring border, in front of your flowering bulbs and pansies. When the spring flowers are done, you can harvest the lettuce and free up the flowerbed for something summery.

Sow seeds about a week before the last frost. Cover seeds with about 1/4 inch of soil. Keep moist, and expect germination to occur in about a week. Thin seedlings to 8 inches apart in the garden. For frequent use or heavy harvesting, make a new sowing every two weeks.

Butterhead Lettuce Care

Light

Butterhead lettuce grows best in full sun. Plants will tolerate part shade, and in hot climates, some afternoon shade will help delay bolting. 

Soil

Like all lettuces, butterhead lettuce does well in an average to rich, somewhat sandy soil. Lettuce can succumb to rot in heavy clay soils, so if this describes your soil, consider container culture. A slightly acidic to neutral soil (6.0 to 7.0) is best.

Water

Keep your butterhead lettuce plants consistently moist from planting until harvest. The ideal moisture will have your soil feeling like a wrung-out sponge.

Temperature and Humidity

Butterhead lettuce grows best in cool to moderate temperatures between 45 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures above 80 degrees Fahrenheit signal plants to form flowers (bolt), which decreases eating quality. When summer temps get the best of your lettuce crop, take a break and plan on planting a second crop of lettuce when fall arrives.

Fertilizer

Nitrogen-rich fertilizer promotes the leafy growth of butterhead lettuce. You can choose a single ingredient simple fertilizer such as blood meal, or feed by adding generous amounts of compost or manure to the soil. For a quick nutrient boost for successive plantings, use a liquid fertilizer formulated for vegetable gardens.

Butterhead Lettuce Varieties

  • Buttercrunch’ is very tender and does better than other varieties in warmer climates.
  • Boston’ has a medium-large head of loosely arranged broad light-green leaves.
  • Bibb’ is a traditional butterhead with a smaller, compact head of short dark-green leaves with dark-red edges.
  • ‘Four Seasons’ (‘Merveille Des Quatres Saisons’) has red outer leaves and inner leaves with a pink and cream color.

Butterhead Lettuce vs. Leaf Lettuce

Leaf Lettuce
Leaf Lettuce.  Ascent/ PKS Media Inc./Getty Images

While butterhead or buttercrunch lettuce forms a loose head shaped like a rosette at maturity, leaf lettuce does not form a head, and it is slightly more crisp. Leaf lettuce has a mild flavor but is somewhat more astringent than butterhead lettuce. Combine the two in a container to add variety to your salad garden.

Harvesting

Unlike many vegetables, it’s almost impossible to harvest butterhead lettuce too early. The smallest leaves are tender and delicious as baby lettuce in salads. Make use of these leaves when thinning young plants in the garden. As the plants grow, you can harvest the outer leaves only, leaving the inner leaves to grow. Or, you can remove the entire plant if you desire a head of lettuce. By cutting the plant at the base and leaving the roots to grow, new leaves will sprout, giving butterhead lettuce a cut-and-come-again quality. 

It’s important to harvest butterhead lettuce before the plants bolt (produce flower stalks). The leaves of bolting plants become bitter and unpalatable. 

Butterhead lettuce is delicate and wilts quickly after harvest. Pick the leaves in the late morning when the dew has dried, or in the evening. Store the leaves dry in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator, set on high humidity if your drawer has controls. Store the lettuce away from ethylene-producing produce such apples and other fruit, which will hasten the wilt and decay of the leaves. 

Common Pests and Diseases

Slugs and aphids are the worst pests for the succulent, rapid-growing butterhead lettuce leaves. Avoid chemical sprays, as you will be eating these leaves eventually. Practice cultural controls, such as handpicking and traps for slugs, or blasts of water for aphids.

How to Grow Butterhead Lettuce in Pots

Butterhead lettuce is compact and has a shallow root system, making it an ideal container specimen. Container growing can also help you thwart ground-dwelling slugs and snails. Butterhead lettuce is surprisingly attractive in a mixed container garden—grow it with edible cool-season blooms such as nasturtiums, pansies, and calendula flowers to yield a spring mix that you can harvest for weeks

If you purchase butterhead lettuce transplants, pot them up with about 4 inches between plants. The plants can tolerate this closer spacing in pots, where they won't have any competition from weeds. Use a lightweight potting mix rather than garden soil or topsoil to ensure good drainage. Plants should not need repotting; if they begin to get crowded, harvest and start over with a new planting.