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. 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?
Wild lettuce is a biennial plant that grows as a rosette close to the ground in its first year. The plant flowers in the second year and grows a long upright stem where the flower head arises. It can grow up to 7 feet tall in the right soil and growing conditions.
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.
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.
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 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 myself. 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 the 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.
Harvest & Medicinal Use
Once the flowers open we will begin harvesting. Then it will be awhile 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.
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. Then you place them into a jar in a ratio of 1 part plant matter to 2 parts alcohol. Let the mixture sit in a cool, dark place for 1-4 weeks. Then 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 an 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.
To make a 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 a 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 a mild euphoria and mild sedative effect. This is probably not the most suitable way to use this plant if you have asthma, or you may have an allergy.
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.
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.