Nature has a way of offering amazing benefits in not-so-pretty packaging. Wild lettuce blends in with nearly any bed of weeds or forest ground, but offers a wide variety of benefits that can be mixed into salads, added to tea, and harvested for the latex-like sap.
A great herb for preppers and homesteaders alike, wild lettuce can be grown for easy access, as well can be easily found across the world to forage. Here is what you should know about wild lettuce.
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Wild lettuce has been used for its medicinal benefits ever since Hippocrates’ time in ancient Greece (around 430 B.C). Part of the Asteraceae family, wild lettuce is also known by its botanical name, Lactuca virosa.
Since that point in history, wild lettuce has been experimented on extensively, and has been found to have opium-like effects that have been used in medicinal and recreational ways. The ancient Egyptians also relied on wild lettuce for pain relief, and as a sleep aid.
Wild lettuce was originally found in southern European countries and China, and was put to use for similar purposes.
In traditional Chinese medicine, wild lettuce was often used as a topical antiseptic, a medicine that herbalists made from the dried juice of the plant. The seeds have also been historically used to promote the milk flow in nursing mothers, along with being claimed to have been used as a fever-reducer.
Wild lettuce came to North America in the 1800s, and was used for its well-known pain-easing properties during the Civil War.
It is important to note that while wild lettuce does contain pain-killing properties similar to opium, its potency is not as concentrated as opium; additionally, the plant has the benefit of not having opium’s highly addictive side effects, either. Today, wild lettuce has become popular amongst survivalists, as it is so readily available across the globe.
Other names for wild lettuce, or ‘lactuca virosa”, include acrid lettuce, bitter lettuce, green endive, and lactucarium. At one point, many people referred to this plant as “opium lettuce”, possibly due to its historical use as a hallucinogenic (only if consumed in excess for mild effect) in the 1960s and 70s, even though there are no traces of opium found in the plant’s constitution.
Despite the bane and the history of its recreational uses, it is important to note that the FDA that wild lettuce is legal to grow, consume and sell.
Wild lettuce can often be spotted in the summer and early fall seasons, from July to early October throughout North America, as it grows along roads or riverbanks.
Since wild lettuce is a cousin of the types of lettuce we grow in our gardens, this plant will appear similar, but with some natural alternations, including gaps that are circular in nature in the leaves.
Lactuca virosa appears as a fuller version of the lactuca genus, especially when compared to other lactuca plants, such as lactuca serriola and lactuca canadensis. Wild lettuce is a biennial plant, which means that the plant will reach its full life cycle in two years.
This plant can grow up to 80 inches in height, with the leaves being thin, broad, and oval-shaped. Wild lettuce will also eventually produce small, yellow flowers, which appear similar in likeness to dandelions, and begin to grow closer to the fall season.
The overall wild lettuce plant is most often spotted as a green plant, but may also be found to be purplish in color, especially in the stems. Another main part of wild lettuce to look for is the sap, known as “lactucarium”. The sap is of sticky consistency that appears milky-white in color.
There are a wide variety of wild lettuce, or lactplants. For a brief comparison of a few of the wild lettuce varieties, here is an in-depth video that discusses the comparisons between lactuca serriola (prickly lettuce), lactuca canadensis (Canada wild lettuce), and lactuca virosa (which is the plant focused on throughout this article):
Other types of wild lettuce, to name a few of over 75 types, include:
- Alpina; tall blue lettuce
- Biennis; blue wood lettuce
- Graminifolia; grass leaf lettuce
- Ludoviciana; biannual lettuce
- Saligna; willow or narrow-leaf lettuce
- Tatarica- blue lettuce
How to Grow
Wild lettuce can be bought already dried and ground up as a spice but can just as easily be grown. This plant can be grown in a garden plot or flowerpot, but a window box or shallow container would be the best option due to how large the plant can grow. Several varieties of wild lettuce seeds can be purchased online.
Once you obtain the type or types of wild lettuce seeds you wish to grow, sow the seeds in the spring or fall. In the soil, dig a shallow hole or line and drop the seeds in. Cover the seeds with a light layer of soil, and gently press the soil down to secure the seeds in place.
Maintain the soil moisture until germination takes place (in about 10 to 20 days). Moisture control potting soil will help in this process. After the germination process has finished, you are able to transplant and move the newly grown wild lettuce plants to other locations.
If placed in a garden bed or plot, plant about six inches apart, in an area that has access to plenty of sun. Make sure to keep the new plants watered well, and to give the plants time to thrive until they reach their mature, tall stalk state.
While it is easy to purchase wild lettuce online, in most cases it is safer to grow the lettuce plant, as to avoid any potential extra ingredient or trace ingredients in store-bought products. There are products that have certifications listed on the packaging, including U.S Pharmacopeia and NSF International labels, but this only confirms that the ingredients are pure, and the only ingredients in the product are the ingredients listed. Labels do not confirm that a supplement will work for you.
Since there are so many types of wild lettuce, here is a video talking about another form of wild lettuce that is better suited for eating:
How to Harvest
In the late summer, between the months of late July and late August, is the best time to harvest wild lettuce (note: flowers will not bloom until the plant’s second year).
Harvest when flowers are in bloom, as by that point the wild lettuce will have had time to mature and build up the medicinal sap. Harvest the plant in sections to keep the sap in production, as pulling the plant out with the roots would seize any further production.
Start by draining the plant of sap by cutting off the flower clusters. Next, drain the sap from the stems into a container, cutting the stems into one-inch pieces for easier draining.
First off, please keep in mind this is not medical advice, I am not your doctors, and this is not medical information. Neither the author nor this website shall be held liable for any side-effects or injury as a result of applying the advice in this article. Talk to your physician before taking wild lettuce in any way, shape or form.
Why? Well because there have been reports of people experiencing drowsiness, jitteriness, or indigestion. The sap is highly toxic, if ingested in its natural state. Due to potential risks with the latex components found in the sap, wild lettuce should not be consumed or used by pregnant women, nursing women, or children – but ask your doctor just to be sure!
There is no known evidence involving the reactions of wild lettuce in animals, so it is not advised to give any pets or farm animals wild lettuce. It’s important to take note on any adverse effects including rapid heartbeat, blurred vision, increased to extreme anxiety and/or agitation, hallucinations, inability to urinate.
In case of experiencing any of the above listed effects, or any other suspected related effects, stop use immediately and contact 911, poison control, or your physician.
How to Prepare It
Wild Lettuce Extract
From the seedpods and leaves, a wild lettuce extract can be produced.
- Lightly blend the lettuce leaves in a blender or food processor, then boil in a pot of water.
- Once the water has turned a shade of deep green or dark brown, remove pot from the stove, and strain the leaves from the water using cheesecloth.
- Place the water back onto the stove and simmer until a paste begins to form.
- Pour the thick paste-like liquid into a small glass container, preferably with an air-tight seal.
Great Herbal Tea
Although marketed as a spice in stores, wild lettuce can be dried and ground up into a tea, which is made from the leaves. The dried leaves can also be ground up, and divided into homemade capsules or tablets.
With a capsule press and ingestible empty capsules, wild lettuce capsules are easy to make at home. If taking supplements in pill form isn’t your cup of tea, then you can turn the dried tea leaves into a fine powder that can be mixed into drinks.
Green smoothies are a great option for wild lettuce powder! The leaves contain the least amount of sap, so the pain-relieving property would be the least concentrated, but tea is one of the easiest ways to enjoy the benefits of wild lettuce.
The dried leaf tea can also be prepared in a special tea blend, which can be customized for you specific needs. With wild lettuce’s pain-relief property, the dried leaves can be mixed with a variety of other herbs, such as chamomile, mint, and raspberry leaf, to benefit in relieving colds, aches, or other ailments.
Do not use sap from wild lettuce in tea preparations, as it is not water soluble. However, the sap can be prepared in tincture form.
In dried forms, including tea and powder, the recommended amount for wild lettuce is 400 to 500 milligrams, once a day.
In tea, steep one to two tablespoons of the dried wild lettuce leaves. In powder, use one to two teaspoons in water or another drink. These dosages vary depending on the form of wild lettuce being taken, based on concentration.
With dried, loose versions of the plant, it can be difficult to tell exactly how much of the nutrients and compounds you are actually ingesting, so it is recommended to start small initially, and to keep track of the effects, positive or negative. Capsules and tablets are a more controlled version of the substance.
Wild Lettuce Tinctures
Tinctures are basically concentrated liquids prepared with, typically, alcohol. The sap from wild lettuce can be used in the form of a tincture, which offers a dense, concentrated package of wild lettuce’s medicinal benefits.
The making of a wild lettuce tincture is an extensive process, spanning over several days, and involves special equipment, but it is possible to make at home with the use of a blender, tincture press, and patience.
Tinctures and extracts are available for purchase across the world, and through many storefronts (be sure to check the store reviews for quality, and the products for ingredients). Most manufacturers use ethanol in their tincture preparations, but in homemade or herbal clinic preparations, high-proof, organic alcohol is used more often.
If making tinctures or salves at home is the option that sounds the most appealing, here is a video tutorial on how to make them:
Uses & Benefits
Since wild lettuce is used and consumed in a variety of ways, let us take a look at what makes this plant so beneficial.
To start, three components of wild lettuce contribute to its medicinal properties include bioactive compounds, coumarins, and quercetin. Wild lettuce contains bioactive compounds, that are categorized as sesquiterpene lactones, including lactucin and lactucopicrin, that are crucial in defending against disease in the body, such as cancer and cardiovascular disease.
These compounds are also found in other plants, such as calendula and chicory, and are the compounds responsible for the pain-relieving properties found within the plant.
Coumarins are the parts responsible for wild lettuce’s wide variety of properties, as coumarins provide anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic (prevents coughing), anti-edematous (prevents edema) properties, among improving the flow of fluids in the body.
Quercetin is a flavanol found in most fruits and vegetables that has a bitter taste and is used prevalently in dietary supplements for its antioxidant property. The leaves, seeds, and sap are the parts from wild lettuce used for their medicinal properties.
Wild lettuce can be made into tea, smoking blends, and tinctures, to offer a variety of ways to enjoy the natural benefits. Wild lettuce cigarettes have been marketed in the past, as a form of nicotine-free alternative.
Besides being a natural pain killer, wild lettuce can be used as a mild diuretic, an aid in inducing sleep or easing insomnia, an aid in easing anxiety, and in treating asthma or coughing.
Wild lettuce even contains enzymes that are important in slowing the communication between brain cells. Since it has strong pain-easing properties, those who experience joint pain, arthritis, menstrual pain, and other types of nerve pain may benefit from taking regular doses.
Other ailments that wild lettuce may help with include:
- Preventing whooping cough
- Respiratory system issues
- Headaches and migraines
- Swollen genitalia, in men specifically
- Energy levels
- Poor circulation
There are manufactured products made for general use as well as specific ailments, made from the extracts pulled from wild lettuce, including the dried physical plant.
There have been studies conducted to learn more about wild lettuce’s applications in treating different ailments, including malaria, in which lactuca virosa contains the same compounds that seem to provide anti-malarial properties.
The sap can be made into a salve, or ointment, and be applied to external wounds, though talking to your physician and taking a first aid class is probably a good idea before you attempt to do this.
The compounds found within the wild lettuce plant are also useful in topical, antibacterial solutions. The sesquiterpene compounds have been claimed to offer antioxidant properties as well, which is beneficial to skin health in terms of aging.
By mixing the wild lettuce sap with a carrier oil (almond, jojoba, coconut, or olive), the sap mixture can be placed into a metal or glass container and be used an external pain-relieving ointment. If the topical application option seems like an enticing one, here is a great tutorial on how to make a healing salve from the Herbal Academy:
Wild Lettuce: A Great Herb to Know
Wild lettuce is an easy to identify herb that is abundantly common in the areas where it occurs. If you are a forager or homesteader, this is a great herb to get to know, and it is easy to grow in an herb garden as well.
So, take some time to get to know more about wild lettuce, and put this herb to work on your homestead today.
When Tom Harkins is not busy doing emergency repairs to his 200 year-old New England home, he tries to send all of his time gardening, home brewing, foraging, and taking care of his ever-growing flock of chickens, turkey and geese.