Wild Lettuce Anyone?

If you suffer from insomnia, this common weed could be your best friend. It can provide deep relaxation and a delicious, gritty-eyed, cuddly sleepiness when you are wound up and your mind is racing and you find that you can’t get to sleep or stay asleep for long.

Last month I started a bunch of new things in my life. I changed my work schedule, started massage school, began doing some computer consulting work on the side… there were a lot of new things to absorb and a lot to juggle. I was quite wound up and often had trouble getting to sleep, and when I did, I slept lightly and woke just a few hours later to begin tossing and turning for the rest of the night.

Just when I was getting desperate, I found the prickly lettuce (Lactuca scariola) growing tall and strong right at the edge of the yard. To make sure I had the correct plant ID, I felt the row of prickles along the bottom mid-vein of its leaves, and then plucked off one to see the yellowy sap oozing out. Sap will ooze out of any part of the plant that you break off.  I ate about half a leaf, tasting its sweet, slightly bitter, flavor. The young leaves are often used in salads, though the older leaves can get much too bitter for eating.

After eating the leaf, I began gathering what I needed to make a quart of tincture. I felt super relaxed as I walked around the edge of the yard snipping the stalks. Not drugged at all, just calm and relaxed. I also began to feel pleasantly tired and sleepy. I hadn’t felt that in sooooo very long. Delicious.

After I chopped up my harvest and put it in a labeded jar with 100 proof vodka, it was time to get ready for bed. I went through my usual bedtime routine, tidying up, washing up, laying out clothes for the next day, etc, all the while feeling very calm, very relaxed, and knowing that I would have no problem falling asleep that night. I crawled into bed, went right to sleep, and slept soundly the entire night — the first time in over a month!

I have purchased wild lettuce tincture in the past and knew it could help me sleep, but that’s really all I knew about it. Last week I got my hot little hands on Matthew Wood’s new The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants and have now learned a few more things about this plant.

According to the profile in Wood’s book, I can see why it works so well for me. “It is indicated for stiff sore persons with painful muscles, especially the lower back. The pulse is slow and hard… [which] indicates ‘cold blockage’ or ‘internal cold’… Sometimes there is slight evidence of the heat that is being blocked… it produces red margins of the eyelids, allergies, and facial acne.” (p. 307, 308)

I had been very, very cold this past winter, and very, very stiff and sore, especially in my lower back. After reading this I looked in the mirror and sure enough there were red margins around my eyelids also.

He goes on to write that Lactuca also addresses hormonal imbalances caused by excess of androgen — think teenage acne as a common manifestation of this. It has also been used to cure “dropsy” (water retention, edema). Acne and edema — two more conditions that I have dealt with in the past.  Seems I have a lot of affinity for this herb.

However, even if you don’t fit the profile completely, I think it would be beneficial to almost anyone who needs a little help relaxing and sleeping. It is very gentle and effective for that purpose, and unlike most pharmaceuticals on the market for that purpose, it is non-addictive.  I plan to make it a permanent part of my herbal medicine chest.


15 Responses to “Wild Lettuce Anyone?”

  1. Cynthia on 14 Jun 2008 at 2:39 pm

    I was wondering if you are aware that this contains opiates as in opium. I worried about my husband using it due to the random drug testing at his work, do you have any info on this? I find it in the Adirondacks all of the time, but it is often already harvested by others. It is a great sleep aid!

  2. Rosalee de la Foret on 14 Jun 2008 at 4:07 pm

    I just tinctured some of this prickly plant last week and also enjoyed reading about it in Woods new book. Looks like we are right on track. I have a bunch left over from tincturing – do you have any experience of this as an infusion? I think I’ll go ahead and dry it. Thanks for posting!

  3. tammy on 14 Jun 2008 at 8:19 pm

    Hi Cynthia! Wild lettuce does not contain opium, but rather lactucin (and some other chemicals), which are bitter alkaloids that have a mild relaxing and sedative effect but are definitely not the same as opium. Although I have no direct experience with true opium, I understand it is a very strong and addictive substance. In contrast, wild lettuce is very gentle and mild and is non-addictive. Wild lettuce is really quite a different herb than opium. I’m not sure how it would show on a random drug test but I suspect it would not show at all. Do the drug tests look for lactucin? Wild lettuce is not in any way an illegal drug, so it seems your husband would be safe, but again, I really don’t know for sure.

    I’ve no experience with infusion, Rosalee, but I’ve read of people extracting and drying the sap for later use in tea. It seems to me that the whole plant in tea or infusion would be better! Let me know how it turns out!

    (The sap extracted and dried has been called “lettuce opium”, which is why many people think that lettuce has opium, when it really doesn’t)

  4. plantainpatch on 14 Jun 2008 at 9:31 pm

    This post made my day! I now know what to do with my wild lettuce!

    I really am going to have to save up for Wood’s new book.

  5. plantainpatch on 15 Jun 2008 at 10:37 pm

    Hi again,

    The sap out of my wild lettuce is like a milky white. Does Matthew say if that is any different from yellow? I checked Henriette’s site and she says it can be from white to a yellow color so I think it would be ok but thought I may mention it in case.

    Thank you!

  6. tammy on 16 Jun 2008 at 12:25 am

    I haven’t read anything so far about the different colors of sap. Wood has an entry on it in both the Earthwise Herbal and in the Book of Herbal Wisdom (I didn’t realize the latter until just now! Been a while since I looked at that book). He only refers to the sap as “white”. The sap in mine were also milky white, but also some were more yellowy. Now thinking about it, I believe the sap may have become more yellowy, and even orangey, after it was exposed to air for a while. I noticed the darker orangey color on some of the sap that had dripped down onto another leaf while I was examining the leaf I had plucked off, so it had been in the air for a while. I’ve read the sap will turn brown as it dries.

  7. plantainpatch on 16 Jun 2008 at 4:06 pm

    Thank you Tammy!

  8. BK on 20 Jun 2008 at 4:41 pm

    I have been trying to ID this plant with little success. I thought I had it, but I think what I found was actually sow thistle. It had little spikes along the ends of the leaves, not down the midrib. Alas!

    I find plants that resemble the pic here with HAIRS down the midrib, but not spiky. I assume the ones on proper wild lettuce are definitely prickly?

  9. BK on 20 Jun 2008 at 4:45 pm

    Oh and does it have little thorns on the tips of the leaf “teeth”, like sow thistle?

  10. tammy on 20 Jun 2008 at 7:00 pm

    There are several different species of wild lettuce. Some of them do not have the prickles on the midrib – Lactuca canadensis, for example. I think I have a couple different species here, some with prickles, some without. All the leaves are similar, though. The particular species of wild lettuce that I understand to be medicinal and can be used interchangeably are L. scariola, L. canadensis, and L. virosa, but there may be others as well. One species of Lactuca is L. hirsuta (hairy lettuce) and has a similar leaf shape. I do not know it’s medicinal properties, if any. Sounds like a fun topic for more research! You can search the USDA plants database for Lactuca to see a lot of different species: http://plants.usda.gov/

    The wild lettuces in my yard that do have prickles are not sharp like those on sow thistle, and they don’t have the leaf tip thorn. They are soft and prickly, more than hairs but not as sharp as sow thistle. You can run your finger along them without fear of getting stabbed and it would probably not catch on your clothes if you brushed up against it. Sow thistle have all around harder, spikier leaves. You can wait for flowers to get a more positive id also. The sow thistle and wild lettuce are very similar when describing using words, but easy (for me) to tell apart after having seen them both in person. There are probably other differentiating characteristics also, but I don’t know what they all are. As far as I know, there are no poisonous look-a-likes for them, though. Young sow thistle is edible also

  11. BK on 22 Jun 2008 at 11:51 pm

    Thanks Tammy, that’s very informative. I found some more plants which definitely seem to be lactucas. Now — reading what you posted — I suspect them of being hairy lettuce since the prickles were soft and covered the entire leaf. Also, the bottom of the stem was purplish-red (although your photo here shows a purplish-red stem at the base too). My main reservation on the ID is that hairy lettuce is apparently endangered around here according to the USDA site. So maybe it was some other variety.

    Well, this seems like a fairy safe “family” to try at any rate. Thanks again for the great info!

  12. Brian on 23 Jun 2008 at 11:41 pm



    it appears that you are experienced with a lot of plants–far more so than I am.

    I see that you refer people to the USDA site; and that’s cool.

    I wonder if you’ve seen the “plants for a future” site? I use it a whole lot; I find it’s only drawbacks to be the lack of pictures to aid in plant ID, and its focus on the UK. Still, the information there I’ve found to be a constant source of astonishment! BUT: I’m new to all this. I mean I’ve found about 25 species of edible/medicinal plants in my yard—weeds; which I’d have otherwise cursed trampled, and cut down or pulled up to replace with useless grass. Ah, my poor little friends; I promise them I’d have not been so cruel if I’d only known that they had value!

    Anyway, I think the website is PFAF.org. cut and paste “plants for a future” into Google and I’m sure you’ll find it–forgive me for assuming that you don’t already know about it, but if you don’t, it’s a resource!


  13. tammy on 24 Jun 2008 at 11:55 am

    thanks for the info, Brian. The internet is just full of wonderful resources for we plant enthusiasts!

  14. Rick Herzog on 04 Jul 2008 at 9:00 pm

    Thanks to your wonderful blog on wild lettuce, I am relaxing very nicely with a cup of wild lettuce/hops tea right now. I have intermittent insomnia and have not found an herb quite as good as this one you suggested. My first time trying it, not long ago, I slept 2 hours later than I have in years, and I really needed the zzzzs at the time. I love your site and how clearly you explain things, and have photos that really help show the process you are describing. As you may realize too, quality sleep is priceless sometimes, and I am just wanting to let you know, how appreciative I am for your post, and your sharing spirit.

  15. tammy on 05 Jul 2008 at 8:24 am

    that’s wonderful Rick! I agree, sleep is so important. We don’t realize that sometimes until we have to do without it for a while. I’m so glad you enjoy the posts. Thanks for your kind words

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