Eat your greens.

Good advice for health and for taste. I can’t get enough greens, ever! Bring on the kale, collards, spinach and lettuce of all sorts.

There is one lettuce that you might have overlooked. Sea lettuce is a succulent slice of photosynthetic goodness, available for the taking and tasting.

Sea lettuce, ulva lactuca, is a seaweed or green algae that is found in marine environments. Look for flat green sheets with ruffled edges in Island ponds and the ocean. Sea lettuce resides in the intertidal zone: you can find it in water that’s anywhere from zero to seventy-five feet deep. 

While it’s often plentiful, it has been virtually ignored as a fantastic food source and spiffy side dish. Many animals can’t get enough of this green stuff, though, and it is gorged on by manatees, periwinkle snails, sea slugs and geese. So why haven’t many humans discovered it?

Perhaps the problem lies in its preparation. Take heart; it is easy to catch and just as easy to prepare. After collecting from the water sheets of fresh sea lettuce (avoid the decaying brown stuff on the shore), simply rinse it to remove the excess salt water and dry it in the sun, oven, or even in the microwave.

Sea vegetable gourmands suggest that you toast sea lettuce over a charcoal fire, add it to soups or make a salad with it. One aficionado was Lieutenant Colonel William J. Phillipsen, who ate a salad of ulva lactuca, enteromorpha and monostroma that the Japanese call aonori during the First World War. “It was flavored with salad cream, vinegar, lemon, pepper, onions and oil,” he reported. A lot of foods other than seaweeds were on the menu, but Phillipsen described the salad as “wonderfully nice, slightly piquant and not inferior to the best garden salad.”

Others may disagree. Anot her algal epicurean around the same time “ate a similar salad without the condiments and describes it as leathery and waxy in taste, and in spite of a good digestion I thought I would be ill.”

This seaweed is best harvested early in the spring, though it can be found and eaten year-round. If you have excess, sea lettuce freezes well and can be stored that way for six months.

Do beware of this variety of greens once it has begun to rot. Sea lettuce is known to give off hydrogen sulfide gas during decomposition, and the odors of large quantities of the decaying vegetation have been so strong as to take the life of more than one accidental seaweed sniffer.

The BBC reported the 2009 death of a truck driver who was assisting in the removal of 2,000 tons of rotten seaweed from the French beach Saint-Michel-en-Grève. His death was the second fatality reported at that beach caused by coming in contact with the poisonous gases that are produced when large amounts of this gorgeous green turns brown.

There is a bright side to this bright vegetable when it is fresh. This greenery is high in vitamin A, B1, C and iron and is a whopping 15 per cent protein. And don’t worry, each dried helping has less than 1 per cent fat content.

It seems hard to believe that there is such a free and abundant, nutritious food source within easy reach, that more people do not take advantage of. Perhaps some agree with what editor and fashion expert Diane Vreeland once said: “Lettuce is divine, although I’m not sure it’s really a food.”


Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.