Wild Lettuce Benefits, Uses & History

Since ancient times, our ancestors have consumed wild lettuce for herbal remedies and numerous health benefits. This bitter cousin of the common garden lettuce is a biennial herb.

It belongs to the Lactuca genus of flowering plants and the sunflower family.

Wild Lettuce Benefits, Uses & History

Native to Europe, its botanical name is from the Latin “Lactuca Virosa”. Lactuca translates to “milky extract” and Virosa means “toxic.”

This distinct plant is also known by many other names including:

  • Wild lettuce
  • Bitter lettuce
  • Opium lettuce
  • Laitue Vireuse
  • Tall lettuce
  • Great lettuce
  • Poisonous lettuce 
  • Wild opium
  • Horse thistle
  • Prickly lettuce
  • Compass plant
  • Rakutu-Karyumu-So

You may be wondering why it is called “milky extract.” Well, this wild lettuce has a kind of bitter-tasting milky juice that is available from almost all parts of the herb.

In particular, the seeds, leaves, and latex of this herb have been frequently used for medicinal purposes. The fresh leaves can be a great topping to salads but compared to typical salad greens, they have a stronger, bitter taste.

For thousands of years, this bitter herb has been used for relaxation and sedation.

Tough and easy to maintain, wild lettuce has been used by some of history’s most famous figures such as Roman Emperor Augustus who consumed it for health reasons. 

Today, we are going to tell you everything you need to know about wild lettuce. We will be discussing its various health benefits, the best methods to prepare and use, and delve into the history of this famous plant.

What is wild lettuce?

The most common form of Lactuca Virosa can be found in North America and Europe. This biennial herb (a flowering plant that takes two years to complete its biological cycle) can grow up to approximately 200 cm high.

You will often find the plant growing in grassy places at the side of roads, sidewalk cracks, canals, hillsides near the sea, vacant parking lots, and various waste areas.

It tends to enjoy rich, moist, well-draining soil so wetter regions will see this herb in a greater abundance. 

Wild lettuce has an erect stem that is pale green and smooth but can sometimes have spotted purple marks on its surface. It features a brown-colored tap-root with some prickles on the short branches protruding from its body and its lower parts.

These prickly parts are unique to this herb as most plants in the Lactuca genus feature bristles.

The leaves look very similar to dandelion leaves but vary with 5 florets (on the head of the stem) and a much darker green color.

The leaves generally grow from 6 to 18 inches long while the stem leaves are small and clasp to the stem with two miniature lobes.

Many of the health benefits from wild lettuce are derived from its active ingredients such as different flavonoids, coumarins, and various antioxidants.

Perhaps the most noticeable ingredient is Lactucarium. This is the milky sap that is extracted from most parts of the plant as an analgesic (relief from pain). 

Small yellow flowers measuring around ¼-inch wide are evident on wild lettuce herbs. However, numerous flowers can occur on one single plant.

This flowering generally happens from July to September. After this period, wild lettuce produces rough, oval-shaped fruit that is black in color.

These have a broad wing along their edge that stretches out above into a long, white beak that boats silvery clusters of hair.

The benefits of wild lettuce

Unlike the common green lettuce, this wild variety is not considered a vegetable. However, it is more popular for its opium-like effects from its psychotropic properties.

History tells us that the Ancient Greeks and the Romans used wild lettuce as a food crop. 

Generations have used this herb for its numerous benefits. Let’s take a look at some below.

A painkiller

Wild lettuce has analgesic properties as well as sedative effects. Together, these make the plant an effective painkiller.

The compounds contained in the lactucarium create similar actions to morphine. This powerful medicinal painkiller is used to reduce the central nervous system and limits its ability to feel pain.

With similar effects, wild lettuce is extremely beneficial for treating arthritic pain, colic pain, muscle spasms, muscle pain, joint pain, and uterine cramps common in women during their menstruation. 

Treatment for urinary tract infections

Wild lettuce has diuretic properties that can be used to treat urinary tract infections. Such natural diuretics are considered a safer alternative than medicinal diuretics due to the limited risk of any side effects occurring. 

Treatment for the hardening of arteries

Arteries can become thick and stiff if someone suffers from a condition known as Atherosclerosis. Because of this, blood pressure tends to increase while the blood flow to the organs and tissues becomes severely restricted. 

This is commonly due to cholesterol, fats, and a range of other substances that become built up in the artery walls.

One relief from this is the use of seed oil from wild lettuce. It is thought to help regain flexibility and elasticity within the affected arteries.

Treatment for respiratory issues

Another regular use for wild lettuce is as a natural treatment for asthma or other debilitating coughs. Its antitussive properties help decrease the irritation in the bronchial tubes and lungs.

Wild lettuce can also help facilitate the difficulty in breathing that is commonly associated with asthma.

Other health issues such as whooping cough or bronchitis can also be treated effectively with this powerful plant. 

Helps with skin ailments

It has been found that wild lettuce can be beneficial in treating chapped skin. Over the centuries, many communities have used it topically to treat minor skin-related issues such as infections or grazes. 

Soothes stress and anxiety

Many take advantage of the mild euphoric properties that wild lettuce offers.

These properties are thought to inhibit your central nervous system’s functions and can, therefore, calm down an anxious mind and soothe stress.

Treatment for migraines and headaches

Many people use wild lettuce as an effective remedy for headaches and migraines. Just a single cup of wild lettuce tea can reduce the searing pain of a headache.

And sufferers say the effects can be felt in minutes. The tincture form of this wild herb can also be used as an effective treatment for headaches.

Acts as a sedative

Not only can lettuce act as a painkiller but it can also relax the body. It has been used as a useful treatment for insomnia as well as anxiety. 

Also known as feeble opium, wild lettuce does not upset the digestive system as some sedatives may. Instead, it is said to create a euphoric feeling that is almost dreamlike.

In turn, it helps people drop off to sleep much easier.

The sedative effect from wild lettuce is extremely beneficial to those with an overactive nervous system and for hyperactive children.

Treatment for sexual disorders

Wild lettuce has been used to decrease an individual’s sex drive. Women who suffer from nymphomania, an uncontrollable, extreme sex drive, see their desires decrease with treatment. 

Uses of wild lettuce

Wild lettuce

Some traditional uses of wild lettuce include the following:

  • The lactucarium in the sap has been used in medicine for its antispasmodic, anodyne, digestive, diuretic, narcotic, hypnotic, and sedative properties. 
  • It has been taken internally to treat anxiety, stress, insomnia, neuroses, dry coughs, whooping cough, hyperactivity in children, and more. 
  • Sap has been used topically to treat warts.
  • Used as a homeopathic remedy.
  • Treatment for a swollen liver, coughs, chronic catarrh, and urinary tract infections.
  • Used to treat multiple ailments such as insomnia, pain, sore muscles, menstrual problems, and asthma.
  • To relax nervous tension and excitement in children.
  • To loosen and remove phlegm from the respiratory tract.
  • Treatment for dry skin.
  • To boost lactation in nursing mothers.
  • Wild lettuce latex has been used to kill germs on the skin.
  • Has been combined with different herbs such as licorice to ease bronchitis and nasty coughs.

Wild lettuce has also been used in many culinary dishes. Its leaves can be consumed raw or cooked and the mild-flavored oil, extracted from the plant’s seeds, is commonly used in cooking. 

How to use wild lettuce

Wild lettuce has been, and continues to be used, in the form of tincture, tea, capsules, and as a whole smoked dried herb. Out of these, the most common types are tinctures and teas.

When using this herb for pain relief, the dosage depends on various factors such as the intensity of the pain, the age of the sufferer, and their general health.  

However, it is important to note that there is no scientific base (no precise dosage) when supplying wild lettuce. But the general dosage is around the following:

  • Use 3 to 4 ml of tincture around 2 to 3 times a day
  • Drink 2 to 3 cups of wild lettuce a day. This should be made with two teaspoons of chopped leaves or the stems of the lettuce). 

These levels are considered safe, effective, and have no side effects whatsoever. If wild lettuce is consumed in the correct, normal doses for a small period, it is relatively safe. If you consume too much, you may feel drowsy and restless. 

Do not use excessive doses of wild lettuce as this can result in slower breathing and, in extreme cases, possible death.

Side effects

Due to its unique properties, there are some serious side effects to look out for if you consume too much wild lettuce.

You must avoid using these leaves if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. The herb’s depressant nature can be detrimental to both mother and child. 

Other side effects include:

  • Sweating
  • Glaucoma
  • Skin inflammation
  • Pupil dilation
  • A faster heartbeat
  • Ringing inside the ears
  • Sedation
  • Fatigue
  • Sudden difficulty in breathing
  • Changes in vision 

The active ingredient and potent antioxidant effects that are hidden in wild lettuce can cause side effects from inflammatory allergic reactions to mild vision changes.

The more wild lettuce you consume, the higher risk you are at from suffering some of these side effects.

If any serious side effects occur, seek immediate medical attention. 

The history of wild lettuce

This potent plant has been utilized as a medicine for almost 2,500 years. The Ancient Greeks obtained sap from wild lettuce and used it as pain relief.

By the time of the Civil War, North America had welcomed this herb as a medical treatment.

We know this as there are records of medical staff during the war using the plant as an analgesic when liquid opium was too difficult to obtain. 

Around this time, individuals in Europe were noticing the effects of wild lettuce. In particular, certain Polish users were noticing that, despite its obvious opioid effects, wild lettuce had no addictive properties.

This simply added to the medical values of Lactuca Virosa.

Fast forward to the 1960s and the hippy movement was at large throughout the United States. Hippie communities began using wild lettuce as a legal way to get high.

However, compared to other drugs such as LSD or heroin, this herb’s psychoactive properties were very mild. 

Although a treatment for stress and anxiety, wild lettuce is a natural depressant. Therefore, you must use caution when using the plant in any form.

The plant was actually illegal to grow in the US until the 1970s. But the FDA recently made it legal again to grow, own, and sell on.

Today, wild lettuce is thriving and extremely popular with herbalists and homeopaths. It is used for a range of remedies that target several ailments and many individuals who suffer from debilitating illnesses swear by the curative powers that wild lettuce offers. 

In Summary

Wild lettuce. A beneficial herb that has been used for thousands of years to treat multiple ailments both physically and psychologically.

Even after so many years, it continues to be a popular choice of remedy by many today.

But if you decide to try this lettuce’s curative prowess out for yourself, ensure that you prepare it properly and take the necessary doses.

Although rare, side effects can be serious and may need medical attention in some instances.