Wild lettuce belongs to the Lactuca, or lettuce, family of the plant kingdom. The plant pictured above is Lactuca virosa. It is related to your garden lettuce, which is Lactuca Sativa. Wild lettuce is a close cousin to dandelion. Both exude a milky white latex when injured.
It was introduced to the US from Europe and Asia and now grows wild in many areas of the US. This plant has been used for hundreds of years as a mild substitute for opium by physicians when opium was unavailable. It can be used medicinally as well as being edible when the leaves are young. Let’s take a look at the uses of wild lettuce for natural medicinal purposes.
What is Wild Lettuce?
Lactuca virosa, commonly known as the wild lettuce, is a close relative of cultivated lettuce, and both belong to the same species, Lactuca. Wild lettuce has a long history of being used for medicinal and edible purposes.
It has been used in traditional medicine for centuries to treat a variety of ailments, including pain, insomnia, anxiety, digestive issues, and coughs. It has also been used as a sedative and to treat fevers.
The plant has a bitter taste, which makes it unpalatable for many. It is typically dried and powdered before being used in medicinal preparations. The dried herb can also be used in teas, tinctures, and extracts.
Wild lettuce contains lactucin and lactucopicrin, two compounds known to have sedative effects. It also contains a variety of flavonoids, which are known for their antioxidant properties.
In addition to its medicinal uses, wild lettuce can also be eaten as a vegetable. The leaves can be cooked and added to salads or cooked dishes. It has a bitter taste, but can be used to add flavor and texture to dishes.
How to Identify Wild Lettuce
Since this plant is related to the dandelion, one way to help identify it is by looking at the flowering heads. They produce seeds that have tops, so they can disperse in the wind similar to dandelion seeds. The leaves of several varieties look very similar to dandelion leaves, only larger. They usually have hairs running along the midvein on the underside of the leaves. This explains another common name for the plant, prickly lettuce.
Another easy way to help identify wild lettuce is by removing one of the lower leaves. A white, milky latex will seep from the end of the stem where the leaf was attached. The white latex is quite thick and sticky. When it dries it turns brown and has an offensive odor.
What Is The Active Chemical In Wild Lettuce?
Wild lettuce exudes a milky latex when the stem is broken or leaves are removed from the plant. This latex contains the chemical constituents that we want to collect to use for medicinal purposes. The latex contains a substance known as lactucin. Lactucin is a bitter substance that has been found to have analgesic and sedative properties in the lab.
There are very few human studies and scant animal studies on the effects of wild lettuce. A few studies did suggest that there may be pain-relieving properties, as our ancestors believed, but more studies are needed.
This is the substance that has been used since Ancient Egypt as a pain reliever and sleep aid. Another name for wild lettuce is opium lettuce. This was its main use in the US and its pain-relieving properties were believed to be similar to opium. Its use appears to have begun as early as 1799 in the US as a substitute when opium was not available. It fell out of favor at one time, but it made a comeback in the 1970s when it was promoted to use for its mild euphoric effects and relative safety compared to opioid drugs. It does not have the deleterious effects on the digestive tract as opioid drugs and is not addictive.
How Do You Use It?
Wild lettuce can be used to make an infusion, a tincture, or can be dried and smoked as well. You can find dried wild lettuce online if you prefer to purchase it already prepared. You can also purchase the tincture in a commercial preparation if you prefer to go that route.
Since I prefer to go the DIY route, I purchased some seeds for planting. The seeds are fairly hard to sprout and can take some time to sprout into seedlings. They usually germinate in 10-20 days, however, if the soil temperature is too warm they won’t sprout. Considering this, you should start them in early spring or late fall.
How I Grow Wild Lettuce
I grew them the first year in pots, so I could tend to them better and didn’t have the pain of weeds to deal with. In the late fall, I transplanted them to the garden where they did well over the winter, and it wasn’t cold enough to harm them.
This spring they were healthy and as soon as the weather warmed they started to grow tall and produced flowering heads. Once the flowers open they will be ready to harvest and the lactucin levels will be at their most potent. Note how these plants shot up to over 6 feet tall in the second year. For comparison, I am 5’9″ and they are a bit taller than I am.
The plants are biennial and grow in a rosette close to the ground in the first year. In the second year, they will bolt and produce the flowering heads and seeds as seen in the above photo.
Harvest & Medicinal Use
Once the flowers open we will begin harvesting. Then it will be a while before I can report on the effects as it takes about 8 weeks for the tincture to extract the active constituents from the plant parts.
*Update- After making and using the tincture over the last winter I can confirm that. Using the tincture provided relief from a painful back strain from working in the garden. I have also used it after a strenuous hike to help relieve the pain from sore muscles and joints and to help me sleep. The anecdotal evidence from my use suggests that, at least for me, the tincture does decrease the level of pain from minor muscle aches and pains.
Typically, to make a tincture you use high-proof alcohol such as vodka or pure grain alcohol. To make a tincture you would place the cut leaves and stems into a blender for a few seconds to break them down further. (You aren’t required to use the blender. I simply used scissors to cut up the leaves and stems for the last batch of tincture I made and it yielded acceptable results.) Place them into a glass jar in a ratio of 1 part plant matter to 2 parts alcohol. (I found that packing as much plant material as possible into the jar and then adding 80-proof vodka to completely cover the plant matter was just as effective.) Let the mixture sit in a cool, dark place for 4-8 weeks. You’ll want to give the jar a good shake every few days to help extract as much of the active chemical constituents from the plant matter as possible.
After 4-8 weeks strain through a strainer or cheesecloth to remove the plant material. You can strain a second time through a coffee filter to remove fine particles. Store in a dark container with an airtight lid.
The dosage for a tincture using wild lettuce is 0.5ml-3ml up to 3 times per day. When using any wild-crafted medicinal plants always begin with the smallest amount and see how it affects your body before using a larger dosage. Since you will not get the sedative effects of opioid medication, it can be safer to use for minor pain. An additional benefit is that you will not develop a physical addiction or tolerance to the pain-relieving effects. However, don’t expect effects that resemble opioid medications. It has been compared more to a high dose of Ibuprofen.
The other benefit of using this is that, unlike opioid medications, wild lettuce doesn’t have the same effects on the digestive system as opioids.
To make tea with the dried leaves use 1-2 teaspoons per cup. Pour boiling water over the leaves and let steep for 10-15 minutes. Strain and drink as tea. Flavor with honey and lemon to alleviate the bitter taste.
This is a less popular way to receive the effects of opium lettuce. Smoking is said to produce mild euphoria and a mild sedative effect. This is probably not the most suitable way to use this plant if you have asthma, or if you may have an allergy to it.
In addition to the pain-relieving use of wild lettuce, it has also been used by herbalists to treat the following:
- Muscle and Arthritis Pain
- Painful Periods
Now that you know of all the benefits of wild lettuce you can decide for yourself if using this amazing wild plant medicine is right for you. Always make sure you properly identify any wild plants you intend to use. If you have any doubts please consult a qualified professional to assist you.
Wild lettuce is legal to grow and use in the US and has not received any schedule designation from the FDA. This means it is legal to grow, possess and use for US residents. Please be sure and check local regulations if you plan to use this plant.
If you would like information on other wild medicinal plants you can read some of our other articles such as this one on Mullein. We also have additional information on essential oils and herbal medicines here.
Disclaimer: This article should not be construed as medical advice. The information in this article is not intended to assess, diagnose, prescribe, or promise a cure for any medical condition. Consult with your health care professional before considering any natural supplement or plant remedy for your health and wellness. We assume no liability for the use or misuse of the material presented above. Always consult with a medical professional before changing your diet, or using manufactured or natural medications.