Wild Lettuce: The Natural Pain Killer (That Works Quickly)

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?

lactuca virosa wild lettuce plantIt is a plant which can grow 6 feet tall.  It has yellow flowers and spiny leaves.  The Latin name “lactuca” means “milk juice” and refers to the milky substance (Lactucarium) which comes out of the plant when it is cut.

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?

It is indigenous to the Himalayan region of India.

It is found 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.

You can also find the plant in Europe, particularly the central and southern parts.  In England, you can find it in the East and Southeast parts.

 

History of Wild Opium Lettuce

Wild lettuce has a long history of medical use.  Its use goes back to ancient Egypt and depictions of it were seen in hieroglyphics.  During the Roman Empire, Emperor Augustus built an altar to the plant after using it to recover from illness.

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

wild lettuce milkIdentification can be a bit tricky because it closely resembles dandelion (Taraxacum) and milk thistle (Lactuca serriola).

When young, wild lettuce has short leaves that grow in clusters.  As it gets older, it develops a thick stalk with long leaves coming off of it.  The leaves are smooth and a light green color.  Sometimes the leaves have purple spots on them.  The root is brown.

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.

 

Vs. Dandelion

Most of us are familiar with how dandelion looks in our yards.  However, when dandelion gets older, you might mistake it for wild lettuce.

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).

Lactucva vs Virosa leaves
Left: Young Lactuca virosa. Right: Young Lactuca serriola
Leaf comparison Prickly vs Wild lettuce
Left: Lactuca virosa (opium lettuce). Notice how the leaves are more rounded. Right: Lactuca serriola. Notice how the leaves are divided and spread out.
Flowers on Lactuca Virosa vs Serriola
Left: Lactuca virosa. Right: Lactuca serriola. Notice how the flowers are identical.

Using Wild Lettuce for Pain Relief

The main benefit is that it is a powerful herbal pain reliever, hence why the plant is often called “opium lettuce.”

Recommended Reading: Natural Homemade Pain Killers

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.

Other Benefits

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:

Wild Lettuce can treat many illnesses:

  • Coughs
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Colic
  • Menstrual pain
  • Rheumatism\Aching joints
  • Anxiety
  • ADHD and hyperactivity in children
  • Flatulence
  • Insomnia\Sleep problems
  • Edema
  • Anti-convulsant
  • Kidney disorders

Sources – (3), ​(4)

 

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)

 

As 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.

Instructions:

  1. Gather leaves.
  2. Dry the leaves (If using a dehydrator, make sure you use the low heat setting so you don’t destroy the active compounds).
  3. Grind the leaves.
  4. Mix 1-2 teaspoons of dried leaves with 1 cup of water.
  5. Let steep for 3-5 minutes. Strain and drink.
  6. 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.

Extract/Resin

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.

Instructions:

  1. Gather leaves.
  2. Put in a blender.
  3. Blend for just a few seconds. You don’t want to completely blend up the leaves.
  4. Pour the ground leaves into a pot.
  5. Add just enough water to cover.
  6. Put the pot on a stove at LOW heat.
  7. DO NOT LET THE MIXTURE BOIL!
  8. Heat for 30 minutes, stirring often.
  9. The water should turn a very dark green color.
  10. Strain the leaves through a fine mesh (pantyhose works well for this).
  11. Collect the liquid.
  12. Put the liquid into a clean pot.
  13. Heat on LOW again.
  14. Stir frequently. Make sure the mixture doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot.
  15. The water will evaporate, leaving behind a concentrate of wild lettuce extract.

If you want to learn more about making the extract, have a look at this video from the Lost Ways team.

making lettuce resin

Tincture

wild lettuce tincture

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:

Instructions:

  1. Harvest the entire wild lettuce plant
  2. Chop it up into smaller pieces then put it into a blender.
  3. Add your stripper to the blender.*
  4. Let the mixture sit for at least 3 minutes. Some people recommend letting it sit for 1 week.
  5. Blend thoroughly.
  6. Strain the mixture through a fine mesh, collecting the liquid in a jar.
  7. Strain again using a coffee filter, once again collecting the liquid in a jar.
  8. 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)

 

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.

Buy Online

This brand of extract is very reputable, organic, and non-GMO.
Liquid Extract (With Alcohol)
Check On Amazon

If you’d rather have a non-alcohol tincture, this brand is also very reputable and organic.
Alcohol-Free Liquid Extract
Check On Amazon

 

Smoking

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.

You can buy the leaves on Amazon.

 

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

wild lettuce 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:

  • Lethargy
  • 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.
Nature’s Way Activated Charcoal

Legal Status

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.


If you want to learn more about using this amazing plant, have a look at this video from the Lost Ways team.

making lettuce resin

Disclaimer: This article is 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!

I’m Jacob Hunter, founder of Primal Survivor.
I believe in empowering people with the knowledge to prepare and survive in the modern world.

More about Jacob here.

Leave a comment

    • Hi Melinda – dosage is covered in the article above. It is not suitable for rubbing on painful areas but can be taken as tea, smoked or turned into a tincture again this is all covered in the article.

  1. Good job. I liked your article, informative. Now I pretty well know, what that plant in the yard is, lactuca-serriola-min. aka spiny Wild Lettuce. It’s a keeper.

  2. It has not been explained how one can get pain relief by smoking or vapoizing wild lettuce when such requires higher temperatures than that which would destroy all the good stuff (boiling). Please clarify? Thanks!

  3. I have wanted this information for sometime. I dry and prepare lot of my own herbs .I will pick and prepare this thru the summer for tea .Thanks again Carolyn

  4. I really enjoyed your article, it helped clarify aspect such a identification. I could not find any sources online for which parts of the plant contain the most lactones, however. I was hoping you could help. Thank you for the knowledge!

  5. Hi. I just made my first batch of resin. It’s very bitter but with a little honey in the spoon, not bad. It works very well for pain. Even severe pain.. I am very pleased to find out about this. I believe the way of the future is in the ways of the past..

  6. A commenter^^ stated he had the Spiny plant growing in his yard and will harvest it… i understood the Virosa….the smooth plant was the Prefered plant….

    Which is the correct one… and what happens if yiu harvest the wrong one?

  7. I am excited to get started, I did chew a few leaves it was a bit bitter, but I must say I did get instant relief. Thank God for natural help!

  8. Dummy me kept putting weed killer on it, thinking it was a weed that wouldn’t go away! Oh I’m aggravated! Look how many years I lost this stuff! I LOVE your book! Just got it, but having a heck of a time downloading the other great things I bought with it. You’re great! Helping this dummy out! I should’ve listened to my great grandparents! I thought they were nuts eating out of their yard! Boy did I ever learn a ton of stuff! Can’t thank you enough!

  9. Two questions: Is there a difference in the shelf life of the tincture depending on which “stripper” is used to make it? Also, based on your leaf photos, I believe we have this plant on our property but it has little spines only on the central leaf vein. Is this the correct plant? Something to consider: Pain is our body’s way of letting us know something is wrong. If you have arthritis, cancer or a known injury, I would say it is safe to use any pain med, but if you don’t know what the pain is that you’re feeling, you should get it checked and not just mask the problem by covering/eliminating the pain. Someday, getting checked may not be an option, but for now, I’d say get it checked. It may be a warning sign of a bigger problem. Great photos! Great article. Thank you!

  10. Hi
    I’m alittle confused, hope you can help. I have the prickly lettuce in my back yard…looks to be the seriola variety by pictures I have seen. Is the correct plan for the medical properties the Verosa? The verosa has the rounded leaves. My plants have the heavy toothed leaves. Can I use the toothed leaved plants (seriola) for making the resin as shown in the lost ways video? Do both plants have the same properties? thanks for the info.

    • General consensus is that the opium lettuce (rounded leaves) is most potent. The prickly also has some mild sedative effects. Of course these are natural plants so the potency will change from plant to plant.

      Either should be good for the resin.

  11. I wish there was an easy to find definitive picture and highly detailed description of the plant that is the most beneficial for the pain issues. I’ve been lookin online all day and I have seen 2 very different looking leaves. The wide toothed leaf and the rounder version. Everyone is saying both are the same plant but clearly cannot be right?

  12. So the tincture of this plant or the active compounds get tolerated by the brain?
    Or I can use whitout increasing the dosage?

  13. Thank you for your advice! I’m post brain surgery & living with a brain disease. I found lactuca scariola (yard), but I’m still looking for lactuca virosa. I appreciate your info so much! (Can you post a mature virosa with leaves)?

  14. I have noted that you have said that they are hard to germinate, my question is how long before the seeds pop up through the ground.
    My seeds have been planted about 21/2 weeks with no sign of them coming through, I planted about 5 or 6 seeds to start with.
    Any help is appreciated.
    Peter

    • Hi Peter, the seeds should germinate in 10 to 20 days so it looks like these ones have failed. Not sure where you are but very warm soil can be a problem for the seeds, so may be something worth looking at.

    • Are you talking about putting the leaves through a blender? If so this would not be very effective as the dose would not be concentrated. See above for better options such as making tincture. As of now it is totally legal so I don’t believe it would be looked for in a drugs test.

  15. Hi…I would like to share what I do with this plant. We live in the country so I have an unending way to gather the lettuce. I cut down the whole plant at all times through the growing season we have. When you do this, the plant branches out and grown again. I take the whole plant and just snip it into half inch pieces. I do a whole hand full at a time just using garden shears. The white sap (in the stems) seems to work the same at any time during the growing season. I just put the cut up leaves and stems in cheap plastic colanders and leave them outside. I turn them over a couple times a day. When they are dry, I put them in jars with lids for storage. I don’t measure when I use it. I put a medium sized pot of water on the stove. I watch it until small bubble form on the bottom. Do not boil! Then I put a couple large spoonfuls of ginger in the pan and stir. This cools the water a little and it is a wonderful remedy herb. Then I fill the pan with as much lettuce as I can and stir it until it all stays under the top of the water. I put a lid on it and let it sit until the next day. The I get a big jar (I use a big pickle jar) I put a strainer on the top of the jar and after I stir it well (the ginger will sink to the bottom of the pan). I squeeze the lettuce very thoroughly. I keep it in the fridge. I pour some in a small jar and when I need pain relief, I just take a drink from the small jar which I refill as needed from the big jar. This works for me and is a very easy way to prepare it… I hope this helps someone.

    • Fantastic information Dana – great to hear of it being harvested and used in this manner. Your method seems incredibly simple, I guess the results depend on the potency of the individual plants .

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