Spinach vs. Lettuce

Written by Cammi Morgan
Published: November 28, 2022
© iStock.com/tashka2000
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Are you a fan of leafy greens? If so, you’re probably familiar with good ol’ spinach and lettuce. What you might not know is that lettuce is actually a genus of plants that contains over 50 species!

Let’s compare the species of spinach vs. lettuce (the genus), and discuss their plant classification, physical characteristics, native ranges and ideal growing conditions, and culinary uses.

Spinach vs. Lettuce: A Quick Look:

SpinachLettuce
Plant ClassificationSpinacia oleraceaLactuca spp.
Physical CharacteristicsLeafy edible green that grows 6 inches to 1 foot tall with a similar spread. Leaves are green, simple, ovate-arrow-shaped (depending on cultivar) with smooth margins. Leaves are 1-3 inches long and wide at maturity. Flowers are less than an inch, non-showy, and yellow or green.Genus of flowering plant with wild and cultivated species. Plants can range from 6 inches to 8 feet tall. Leave types range from rounded to jagged and lanceolate. Flowers are typically tiny, white, yellow or purple, and have many slender petals. Some cultivated varieties of lettuce have purple or red leaves.
Native Range and Ideal Growing ConditionsNative to Southwest Asia. Prefers to grow in full sun to partial shade. Prefers fertile, moist, well-draining soil with a pH of 6.0-8.0. USDA hardiness Zones 2a-11b.Most species are native to Eurasia. Most lettuce species grow best in full sun to partial shade in well-draining, moist, slightly acidic soils. They are typically not drought tolerant. Many wild species in particular don’t thrive in constant heat.
Culinary UsesExcellent for use in salads, in sandwiches, dips, and in cooked dishes. Spinach leaves can be sautéed, baked, and steamed.Edible varieties excellent for use in salads and on sandwiches. Leaves can be used as alternative to sandwich bread.

Plant Classification

While spinach is its own species, Spinacia oleracea, lettuce, Lactuca, is a genus of plants with over 50 species. In comparison, Spinacia only contains three species.

Regarding their botanical families, spinach belongs to the Amaranthaceae family while the Lactuca genus belongs to the daisy, or Asteraceae, family.

Spinach vs. Lettuce: Physical Characteristics

When comparing spinach to cultivated lettuce varieties, you’ll notice some similarities in physical characteristics. First of all, both grow as leafy vegetables with their edible leaves branching out basally from the roots. Second, spinach and several common varieties of cultivated lettuce typically grow between 6-12 inches tall.

full frame of tender green baby spinach leaves
Spinach is its own species.

©iStock.com/tashka2000

However, when comparing spinach to lettuce, note that lettuce species have a wide range of leaf shapes. So, while spinach leaves tend to be oval or spade-shaped, the shape of lettuce leaves can vary widely by variety. Some varieties are wavy, scalloped, notched, spade-shaped, while others more resemble spinach leaves.

Additionally, several varieties of lettuce form dense or loose heads of leaves, whereas spinach leaves do not form a head. Also, spinach leaves have long, thin stems, whereas lettuce leaves tend to have shorter, thicker, less flexible stems.

Center frame: A head of iceberg lettuce sliced in half, exposing many inner leaves, which are white and light yellow in the  half of the head  on the right. The left half is turn the opposite direction, with only its outer leaf, which is light green, visible. White isolate background
Several varieties of lettuce, like iceberg, pictured, form dense or loose heads of leaves.

©iStock.com/Animaflora

Spinach flowers are less than an inch long and come in shade of yellow and green. In comparison, lettuce flowers tend to resemble small daisies and are usually white, yellow, or purple.

Native Ranges and Growing Conditions

Spinach is native to Southwest Asia, while the lettuce genus is mostly native to temperate areas of Eurasia.

two  green baby spinach plants growing in brown soil. The one in the center of the frame has six leaves.; the one lower frame left has three leaves visible. Dar brown soil makes up the background.
Spinach is a highly adaptable, cold-hardy plant that can thrive in USDA Zones 2a-11b.

©iStock.com/SylvieBouchard

In terms of cultivation, spinach and lettuce plants have similar growing preferences. Both spinach and the various species of lettuce can grow in full sun to partial shade, and prefer to grow in well-draining, moist, fertile soil that is slightly acidic. Spinach is a highly adaptable, cold-hardy plant that can thrive in USDA hardiness Zones 2a-11b. Lettuce plants are also typically cold-hardy, with several varieties requiring cold exposure for seed germination.

Center frame: one head of green lettuce growing  in brown dirt / soil. More like ground, not potting soil. The lettuce has a tight head surround / framed by large leaves the stick out from the head. The medium brown dirt is the background
Lettuce plants are typically cold-hardy, with several varieties requiring cold exposure for seed germination.

©pedrolieb/Shutterstock.com

Spinach vs. Lettuce: Culinary Uses

Of course, when comparing the culinary uses of spinach vs. lettuce, it’s important to compare the cultivated, edible varieties of lettuce to spinach.

As leafy vegetables, spinach and lettuce are cultivated for culinary use around the world.

Spinach is a leafy green that boasts a variety of uses from salads, dips, baked meals, and steamed dishes. Common favorites in the US include spinach in salads and on sandwhiches, spinach and artichoke dip, baked spinach on pizza, and steamed spinach as a dinner side dish.

Center frame: A serving odf very green seemed spinach in a large white ceramic wide-rimmed bowl.A silver metal fork and knife are in the up right corner frame, to the right of the bowl. All on table with white table cloth.
Steamed spinach is a popular side dish.

©Ratov Maxim/Shutterstock.com

In comparison, lettuce tends to be prepared in fewer ways, but is an integral component for salads and in sandwiches. Some varieties are crispy and pack a nice crunch (crisphead lettuce) while others have more tender leaves and mild flavor (butterhead lettuce).

Center frame: Tricolored Guinea Pig, tan and white body with black patch above its right eye, frame left. The guinea pig is eating lettuce that is in from of it. The scene is indoors on a patterned rug or hallway runner that is ed and gold mostly.
Humans aren’t the only ones who find lettuce delicious!

©Tomasz Stepien/Shutterstock.com

Up Next:

Sources:

  • plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/spinacia-oleracea/
  • a-z-animals.com/blog/can-dogs-eat-spinach-safely/
  • inaturalist.ca/taxa/53106-Lactuca


The Featured Image

full frame of tender green baby spinach leaves
Fresh spinach leaves as background, top view
© iStock.com/tashka2000

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About the Author

Cam Morgan is a queer forest dweller writing about animals, plants, and ecological-centered living from the hollers of Southeast Appalachia where she lives off-grid in her self-built cabin. She shares 20 forested acres with her wonderful partners and pals, an ever-growing pack of rescue dogs, and all the plants and critters who call these woods home.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.

Sources
  1. ces.ncsu.edu (1970) plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/spinacia-oleracea/
  2. a-z-animals (1970) a-z-animals.com/blog/can-dogs-eat-spinach-safely/
  3. inaturalist.ca (1970) inaturalist.ca/taxa/53106-Lactuca