It is sad how much knowledge we have lost over the years. In addition to traditional skills like gardening, food preservation, and carpentry, we’ve forgotten about medicinal remedies – including ones that can be found in our backyards.
Luckily, some of these traditional medicines are making a comeback, including lactuca virosa, aka wild lettuce.
What Is Wild Lettuce?
That milky substance contains the natural chemicals lactucin and lacttucopicrin. These are the substances which are responsible for it's pain killing properties.
For people just getting started with foraging and natural remedies, wild lettuce is one of the most useful plants to know.
Where Does It Grow?
You can also find the plant growing in the United States in areas like Washington State. I couldn’t find any information about when it was introduced to the USA. However, a lot of foragers claim that it was used by Native Americans as a natural pain reliever and medicinal remedy.
History of Wild Opium Lettuce
It is often called “opium lettuce” because it was used during the 19th century when opium couldn’t be obtained.Don’t let the name “lettuce opium” put you off though. The plant is not addictive and does NOT cause the side effects of opiates such as upset stomach.
Identifying The Plant
When you cut the stalk or leaves, you’ll see a white milky substance known as latex come out immediately.
The latex turns yellow and then brown as its dries and hardens.
Here’s how to spot the difference:
- Height: Dandelion usually doesn’t grow taller than 1.5 feet. Wild lettuce grows up to 6 feet tall.
- Number of Flowers: Dandelions have just one flower. Wild lettuce has multiple flowers.
- Flower Size: Dandelion flowers are usually around 1.5 inches wide. Wild lettuce flowers are small at around ¼ inch wide.
- Stalk: Dandelion will not grow a thick stalk as it grows older. Wild lettuce will get a thick almost woody stalk.
Vs. Prickly Lettuce (Lactuca serriola)
Here is where identification gets tricky. Its cousin lactuca serriola looks a lot like it and their flowers are identical. Since lactuca serriola is found more commonly, you might think you’ve got wild lettuce when it is really prickly lettuce.
*Note - both of these plants can be used interchangeably for pain relief. It is generally accepted that the virosa is more potent, although I can find no scientific source to back this up.
Here’s how to spot the difference:
- Height: Wild lettuce grows taller than prickly lettuce.
- Stalk: Wild lettuce is thicker than prickly lettuce.
- Leaves: This is the best way to tell the difference between the plants. Wild lettuce has leaves which aren’t as divided and spread out more.
Check out these comparison pictures of lactuca virosa (wild lettuce) vs. lactuca serriola (prickly lettuce).
Using for Pain Relief
The main benefit is that it is a powerful herbal pain reliever, hence why the plant is often called “opium lettuce.”
The components which provide pain relief are known as lactones. They act on the central nervous system to calm the nerves which cause pain sensations.
Wild lettuce has been extensively studied and repeatedly shown to reduce pain. (1) The name “opium lettuce” is a misnomer though. While the plant will relieve pain, don’t expect the hardcore sedative effects of opium. It is more comparable to a high dosage of ibuprofen. (2)
The good news though is that it will relieve pain without causing the negative effects of opium. You won’t get addicted nor will you develop a tolerance to it.
Most of the scientific studies were for its pain-relieving properties. However, throughout history wild lettuce has been used to treat a wide arrange of ailments, including:
Harvesting The Plant
All plants contains the active medicinal components. However, these components are low in young plants. Thus, it is best to harvest when it is an adult, right after its flowering period.
It typically flowers between June and August, but this can vary depending on the climate.
To tell whether it is ready for harvesting, just cut the stalk. The milky sap should flow out readily. If it doesn’t, then the plant isn’t ready yet.
How to Prepare The Plant
The milky sap from the stem is the most potent part of the lettuce. Traditionally, wild lettuce was harvested by making cuts in the stalks, letting the sap ooze out, and then letting it dry. The dried sap would be collected.
This traditional harvesting method is very time-consuming and tedious. You might consider just eating the leaves fresh. They are very nutritious (though quite bitter). However, you won’t get a very concentrated dosage this way.
You are better of using one of the methods below. (5)
Wild Lettuce Tea
The pain-relieving components are soluble in water. Thus, one of the easiest ways to get the benefits is to make tea from it.
- Gather leaves.
- Dry the leaves (If using a dehydrator, make sure you use the low heat setting so you don’t destroy the active compounds).
- Grind the leaves.
- Mix 1-2 teaspoons of dried leaves with 1 cup of water.
- Let steep for 3-5 minutes. Strain and drink.
- Repeat up to 3x per day.
Note that wild lettuce tea has a very bitter taste. Add some honey and lemon to make the taste better. You can also mix it with other types of tea to mask the taste.
If you don't want to make your own you can buy the leaf tea on Amazon.
Extracts are very easy to make, but you have to be careful that you don’t overheat the plant. The active components are sensitive to heat.
If the mixture ever comes to a boil or starts sticking to the bottom of the pan, the active components of the wild lettuce will be destroyed.
- Gather leaves.
- Put in a blender.
- Blend for just a few seconds. You don’t want to completely blend up the leaves.
- Pour the ground leaves into a pot.
- Add just enough water to cover.
- Put the pot on a stove at LOW heat.
- DO NOT LET THE MIXTURE BOIL!
- Heat for 30 minutes, stirring often.
- The water should turn a very dark green color.
- Strain the leaves through a fine mesh (pantyhose works well for this).
- Collect the liquid.
- Put the liquid into a clean pot.
- Heat on LOW again.
- Stir frequently. Make sure the mixture doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot.
- The water will evaporate, leaving behind a concentrate of wild lettuce extract.
Tinctures are even easier to make than extracts. They also last for much longer. However, not everyone likes using tinctures because they require alcohol – not exactly something you want to give kids!
The amount of alcohol in tinctures is very low though and the small dosage means you don’t have to deal with the bad taste as much.
Choosing a Stripper:
To make a tincture, you need to have a “stripper.” The stripper is what the active compounds dissolve into. Typically a high-proof alcohol like vodka is used to make tinctures.
However, these are better options:
- Harvest the entire wild lettuce plant
- Chop it up into smaller pieces then put it into a blender.
- Add your stripper to the blender.*
- Let the mixture sit for at least 3 minutes. Some people recommend letting it sit for 1 week.
- Blend thoroughly.
- Strain the mixture through a fine mesh, collecting the liquid in a jar.
- Strain again using a coffee filter, once again collecting the liquid in a jar.
- Store the tincture liquid in dark bottles.
*I’ve seen various recommendations for the ratio of lettuce to stripper. You should be good with a 1:2 or 1:3 ratio of wild lettuce to stripper. Or, use 8oz of stripper for 4 giant plants. If using dried, use a ratio of 1:4 or 1:5. (6)
This video shows the process.
Buying Tincture Online
I’m all for the DIY approach to natural medicine. However, I completely understand if you’d rather just buy wild lettuce extract. It is easier and you can be sure of the dosage/potency.
This brand of extract is very reputable, organic, and non-GMO.
If you’d rather have a non-alcohol tincture, this brand is also very reputable and organic.
Smoking Wild Lettuce
The plant can also be smoked. Just take some ground-up dried leaves and roll them into a cigarette.
If you want to avoid the negative effects of smoking or suffer from asthma, it may be better to use a vaporizer.
Wild Lettuce Dosage
I found a lot of different info on the best dosage. It depends a lot on the potency of the plant you used, how you are consuming it, and your individual tolerance.
With natural remedies, it is often best to start with a small dosage and see how you react. Then you can increase the dose as necessary.
Here are some basic guidelines for pain relief:
- Tea: 1-2 teaspoons of dried wild lettuce seeped in 1 cup of water, 3x per day.
- Resin: Take about 1.5 grams of resin as needed.
- Smoking: Use approximately 0.25 grams of dried leaves.
- Tincture: Take 12-24 drops, 2-3x per day.
Where to Find Seeds
If you find lactuca virosa in the wild, you can harvest the seeds and plant them in your yard (possibly starting a medicinal garden).
The plant grows like a weed, so you should be able to easily grow it regardless of where you live. The flowering period is usually from June to August, and it turns to seed shortly after.
An easier solution is just to buy seeds. I’ve found this brand to be a reliable source although they can be surprisingly difficult to germinate.
Potential Side Effects
It generally has very mild effects, especially when taken in appropriate dosages. In larger dosages, you might see some of these side effects:
- Vivid dreams
- Enhanced colors
- Loss of balance
- Distorted vision (8)
At some websites like this one, you’ll see warnings about the toxicity of wild lettuce: “In high doses can produce stupor, depress breathing and overdose can cause coma/death.”
This seems like a huge overstatement though. There are very few recorded incidences of overdose. In this case study, for example, 8 patients presented with wild lettuce overdose. None of them experienced any long-term adverse effects. One of the patients lost conscious. The study doesn’t say how much they consumed, only that it was a “great deal.”
The patients were treated by keeping them hydrated and using activated charcoal to help absorb the excess wild lettuce in their digestive tracts.
Wild lettuce is not a controlled substance under the FDA. It is completely legal to grow, harvest, and use. You can readily buy it legally as well.
This article is meant for informational purposes only. None of the content is meant to serve as medical advice or to substitute for medical advice provided by your health care provider. Forage and harvest wild plants at your own risk!
"Wild Lettuce in flower (Lactuca virosa)" (CC BY-ND 2.0) by Melanie Shaw Medical Herbalist "wild lettuce (Lactuca serriola)" (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) by The Weed Forager's Handbook "Lactuca serriola-01" (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) by Giorgio Samorini "Wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa)" (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by Steve Guttman NYC "Lactuca serriola (prickly lettuce), infl" (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) by tgpotterfieldLactuca_virosa_01012001 by Accord H. Brisse, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license Lactuca_virosa_14072004, by Accord H. Brisse, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license "Wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa) in Regent’" (CC BY-ND 2.0) by Melanie Shaw Medical Herbalist Lactuca_virosa by Luis Nunes Alberto, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license