L a c t u c a v i r o s a

If you grew up with Beatrix Potter, you know from the Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies that eating flowering lettuces makes you sleepy. Our garden lettuces have been bred to reduce their bitterness, and as a result have far less of a soporific effect than does wild lettuce.

Asteraceae (Compositae) Daisy family

Description: Prickly lettuce (Lactuca serriola ) is a 3-4 ft tall biennial with broad gray-green leaves and arrays of small, pale yellow flowers. Great (or greater) prickly lettuce, bitter lettuce, or lettuce opium (all L. virosa) is darker green, with purple, less spiny stems and similar small yellow flowers. Both species have distinctive spines along the underside of the midrib of the leaves.

Habitat: Roadsides, disturbed or waste ground.

Distribution: These two species are native to Europe, and introduced in North America. Prickly lettuce is generally more common than great lettuce.

Related species: Garden lettuce (L. sativa) can be used similarly, but is not as strong. Canadian lettuce (L. canadensis) is the most widespread North American wild lettuce.

Parts used: Leaves and latex, gathered when plant is in flower, in late summer.

The lettuce we buy in the shop or grow in our garden is a distant and hybridized relative of wild lettuce, but much altered in appearance and flavor. The only thing they have left in common is a milky sap or latex (lactuca) found in the stems of some commercial varieties and all through the plant in wilder varieties.

Strangely, though, if you allow a lettuce in your garden to "bolt" (i.e., flower and then seed), it reverts to something like the wild form, and recovers some of the healthy bitterness we try so hard to breed out of domesticated versions.

It is this bitter latex that is valued medicinally, and all lettuces have some of it. It is most abundant in great lettuce, less so in prickly lettuce and less again in garden forms. It can be harvested by cutting the flowering tops or leaves in summer and scraping off the juice. White when fresh, this juice oxidizes to brown in the air.

In this form it is known as lactucarium, and is chemically akin to opium, though unrelated botanically. Introduced to medical practice in 1771, it was later named lettuce opium. It was much used to adulterate opium in cough mixtures and as a sedative.

Lactucarium could be bought in British pharmacies until the 1930s and was still "official." Nowadays the only "official" part of wild lettuce is the dried leaves. It is just as well, lactucarium being unreliable in content and action.

Lettuce for insomnia is an old remedy. Galen, first-century AD physician to Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, wrote: "I have found no better remedy for my trouble than eating lettuce of an evening.'

But in one respect the reputation of lettuce has changed dramatically since ancient times. A form of cos lettuce, with its wild growth and white sap, was once held sacred to Min, the Egyptian god of fertility. But by the time of the ancient Greeks lettuce had become "the eunuch's plant."

Nowadays lettuce is a recognized anaphrodisiac, with a role in reducing sexual desire; externally, a cold lettuce tea is soothing and cooling for inflamed sexual organs. This effect works equally on both sexes (unlike hops). An old saying from Surrey went: "O'er much lettuce in the garden will stop a young wife's bearing."

Wild lettuce's sedative, cooling value extends to soothing the respiratory system, for dry, irritating coughs and whooping cough. Relaxing spasm in the stomach and uterus, it relieves gripes and period pain. It is also beneficial for muscular and rheumatic pains.

Prickly lettuce; flowers shown opposite

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