Today’s featured plant is Prickly Wild Lettuce, Lactuca Serriola.
Prickly Wild Lettuce is also known as Opium Lettuce, Wild Lettuce and Prickly Lettuce. Its medicinal properties are similar to Lactuca virosa, which is also known as wild lettuce.
Range and Identification of Prickly Wild Lettuce
Prickly wild lettuce is native to Eurasia,but has naturalized throughout most of North America, and also Hawaii (see map). It is found mostly in disturbed soils, such as vacant lots, my garden, along roadsides, in dumps and other waste areas. Prefers full sun and tolerates dry soils. Survival, Tracking and Awareness of Australia has some great photos showing exactly how durable this plant is.
The plant is an annual or biennial, growing 2-7′ tall. Most of mine have been at the shorter end of that range. Leaves are attached in an alternating pattern to a central stalk, and are up to 12 inches long and 4 inches across. They are simple lobed leaves, getting smaller as they move up the plant. The leaves are slightly prickly, mainly underneath, but can be handled without significant discomfort – they only poke a bit. Once dried, they are more prickly.
Prickly wild lettuce blooms from mid-summer to fall. Flowers are small and yellow, about 1/3″ across and 1/2″ in length – somewhat like a skimpy dandelion flower. Flowers have between 5 and 20 toothed petals. Multiple flowers are produced on each plant, and an individual plant can stay in bloom for about a month.
The plants produce a white, milky sap that can be dried and used medicinally.
Wild Lettuce for Food and Medicine
Illinois Wildflowers states: “The nectar and pollen of the flowerheads attract various kinds of bees. The caterpillars of a few species of moths eat the foliage, including Cucullia intermedia (Intermediate Cucullia). The foliage is bitter-tasting and not a preferred food source for mammalian herbivores, although cattle and White-Tailed Deer occasionally eat it.”
These plants are the ancestors of garden lettuce, and the young leaves are bitter but edible. They can be eaten raw or cooked. As the plants mature, the bitterness becomes more pronounced and they get downright unpleasant to eat. Natural Medicinal Herbs shares that the young stems can be cooked and used as an asparagus substitute, and the seeds can be refined to produce an edible oil.
Medicinal Uses of Prickly Lettuce
General medicinal information from Natural Medicinal Herbs:
The whole plant is rich in a milky sap that flows freely from any wounds. This hardens and dries when in contact with the air. The sap contains “lactucarium”, which is used in medicine for its anodyne, antispasmodic, digestive, diuretic, hypnotic, narcotic and sedative properties. Lactucarium has the effects of a feeble opium, but without its tendency to cause digestive upsets, nor is it addictive. It is taken internally in the treatment of insomnia, anxiety, neuroses, hyperactivity in children, dry coughs, whooping cough, rheumatic pain etc.
Concentrations of lactucarium are low in young plants and most concentrated when the plant comes into flower. It is collected commercially by cutting the heads of the plants and scraping the juice into china vessels several times a day until the plant is exhausted. This species does not contain as much lactucarium as L. virosa. An infusion of the fresh or dried flowering plant can also be used.
The plant should be used with caution, and never without the supervision of a skilled practitioner. Even normal doses can cause drowsiness whilst excess causes restlessness and overdoses can cause death through cardiac paralysis. The fixed oil from the seeds is said to possess antipyretic and hypnotic properties. A homeopathic remedy is made from the plant. It is used in the treatment of chronic catarrh, coughs, swollen liver, flatulence and ailments of the urinary tract.
Using Dried Leaves
The Holistic Herbal suggests pouring one cup of boiling water over 1-2 teaspoons of the dried leaves of Lactuca virosa (which has similar medicinal properties) and allowing them to infuse for 10-15 minutes. This infusion can then be consumed up to three times daily. When we were clearing out one of the garden beds, I harvested enough to fill up the dehydrator. I let it dry overnight at low temp (95F) until crisp, and then stored it in a tightly sealed canning jar for later use.
As always, any medical information is for informational purposes only. Always exercise caution when using any wild plants and make sure you have positively identified the plant.
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