I trashed a ton of lettuce last week. As this photo illustrates, it wasn’t lettuce from the store, but lettuce plants from my garden. I pulled up the plants because they had bolted. Bolting is the gardener’s term for what happens when plants get too hot and begin to go to seed.

Going to seed is the plant’s natural process, so it didn’t do anything wrong. However, when lettuce bolts, the leaves get bitter, and most folks don’t like the taste. I don’t mind it, at least in the younger leaves, so I harvested some for later eating. Henry is much more sensitive to bitterness, and we have limited fridge space, so I couldn’t keep it all. Yes, much of it went into the compost, but I’ve got limited space there too. So, some ended up in the trash bin.

As with so much of nature, the plant’s turn toward bitterness actually serves a purpose. When the plant is focused on going to seed, it needs its leaves to fuel the process. Thus, it needs to be less attractive and appetizing to rabbits, cows, and other creatures (like hungry humans!). I have let lettuce plants complete the process in prior years and harvested their seeds, but I short-circuited the process this year because I still have a lot of seed. In fact, every plant you see here was a volunteer that grew from seed that fell to the ground during last year’s seed season!

Early the next morning, I woke up thinking about aging and bitterness. Most of us have probably met people who became bitter in their old age. They might gripe about how things have changed and reminisce about “the good old days.” Perhaps they outline ways “the world is going to hell in a handbasket” or declare how children just don’t behave correctly anymore.

Humans who turn bitter also become less attractive. If they’re related to us, we might feel a social obligation to be nice to Uncle Bob at family gatherings, but otherwise we probably steer clear of them as best we can. But their bitterness doesn’t serve any purpose that I can discern. They aren’t fueling flowers, fruits, or seeds with their unpleasant sharpness.

So, I wonder: Does the turn toward bitterness serve humans in some way too? What do you think?

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