Wild Lettuce (Lactuca virosa)

Wild lettuce is a small, biennial herbaceous plant in the Asteraceae family found throughout Europe, Southeast England, the Punjab region of Pakistan, Australia, and the Southeastern United States along roadsides and in open fields. It has a central erect hollow stem that is a typically smooth and pale green, sometimes spotted with purple, from which a rosette of broad spiny leaves grow. The plant starts as a low-lying rosette, but in the summer when it goes to flower and seed bolts into a spindly upright plant. There are a few prickles on the lower parts of the plant and on the short horizontal branches above. The numerous, large, radical leaves are from 6 to 18 inches long, entire, and obovate-oblong. The rough, black fruit is oval, with a broad wing along the edge, and prolonged above into a long, white beak carrying silvery tufts of hair. The plant has a brown tap-root and summer blooming clusters of pale yellow composite flowers. Its harvested when in full bloom in the late summer and stored best juiced, dried, or prepared in a tincture. It’s easily cultivated in the garden in well drained, moist soils in full sun. The whole plant is rich in a bitter, milky juice that flows freely from any wound. When dry, it hardens, turns brown, and is known as lactucarium.

Parts Used
Fresh leaves, Latex sap

Medicinal Uses
Wild Lettuce is a non-addictive sedative, antitussive, anodyne, mild psychotropic, and hypnotic herb, most commonly used to treat insomnia, restlessness, anxiety, over-active nervous systems, and excitable children. It’s anti-spasmodic properties can be useful in treating whooping cough as well as soothing other coughs. It also relieves muscular pains associated with rheumatic arthritis, as well as colic pain in the guts and uterus, making it a good choice when treating menstrual cramps. The plant is best used fresh, preferably juiced, which can be either taken immediately or dehydrated for storage. The dried leaf has value, but it loses most of its pain relieving qualities when dried. However, dried, it still acts as a mild sedative that can help with pain and sleep, especially when combined with other herbs.

Folk Uses
Once commonly known as “Lettuce Opium”, Wild Lettuce was a common sedative. It was smoked to induce a dreamy, hypnotic state that was milder and less addictive than opium. Dioscorides, an 1st century physician, noted Wild Lettuce had similar effects to that of the opium poppy, and in a concentrated state, was a strong hallucinogen. It was mixed with mother’s milk to soothe burns, and cooked in any type of milk as a home remedy for arthritis. Boiled with rose, it made a useful compress for easing headaches. It was also considered an anaphrodesiac, commonly applied as a compress with camphor to the testicles to repress sexy dreams. A decoction of the leaves was also used as a face wash. In Assyrian herbal medicine, wild lettuce seeds were used with cumin as a poultice for soothing the eyes. It was brought to the United States from Europe supposedly as an adulterant for opium.

Flavor Profile and Energetics
Bitter, cooling

Dosage
As an infusion, 1-2 teaspoons of the dried leaves per cup of boiling water, steeped for 10-15 minutes. As a tincture, 2-4ml three times a day.

Combinations
For irritable coughs, combine with wild cherry bark or licorice. For insomnia and restlessness, combine with valerian and pasque flower, or other pleasant tasting nerviness such as chamomile, lavender, and mint.

Contraindications
Pregnant women and individuals with glaucoma and prostate enlargement should avoid this herb. Ingesting very large quantities can result in stupor, difficulty breathing, coma, and in extreme cases, death. This herb should be avoided two weeks before undergoing any surgery due to possible complications with anesthesia. Allergic reactions in individuals that are sensitive to ragweed are possible.

(s) 1, 2, 7, 10, 15, Divine Farmer

Milky latex exuding from the stem

Milky latex exuding from the stem

Flowers and seed of wild lettuce.

Flowers and seed of wild lettuce.

Variation in the leaves of wild lettuce.

Variation in the leaves of wild lettuce.

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