Wild lettuce (botanical name Lactuca virosa) is found growing extensively throughout Europe and is used for therapeutic purposes. The botanical name of this plant has a relation with a part of the herb’s composition and functioning. When you scratch the plant’s leaf or stem, it will instantly give out whitish latex that has resemblance to milk. The term lactuca has been derived from the Latin word meaning milk, like in the case of lactation. Provided you go through some books on this plant in any library, you will find that during various periods in the past, people deliberately wounded this plant for its milky latex, which was gathered, dried up and shaped in the form of balls, called lactucarium. These balls were taken internally by people in the same way as they took opium. Hence, the medication that was produced from this herb was known as lettuce opium, which was used extensively.
The wild lettuce is a common plant found all over Europe and normally grows in the open areas as well as beside roads and pathways. The plant is also known as the compass plant as its leaves change direction to follow the sun. Since early ages, antecedents of the wild lettuce have enjoyed a special status as a beneficial therapeutic plant and were treasured as a tranquilizer and pain killer. The herb valued so much that during the 19th century people used it as a substitute for opium! The story goes that Roman emperor Augustus supposedly constructed a statue of a physician who had recommended lettuce to treat him of a serious ailment. While it is not comprehensible which variety of lettuce cured the emperor, it is believed that the herb was prickly lettuce.
Referring to the therapeutic properties of wild lettuce, noted English herbalist Gerard said as early as in the sixteenth century that this herb helped in inducing sleep, alleviated pain, stabilized the menstrual cycles in women, and was drunk to cure spider bites and scorpion stings.
Wild lettuce possesses sedative properties and, hence, it is not surprising that when people drink tea prepared from this plant, they usually do not have enough craving for sexual activities. It may be noted that the observations made by Gerard in this regard manifests the idea that was widely believed by other people during his time. This conception continued till the Victorian era. You ought to remember that these are the same people who had said that consuming wild lettuce would lead to sterility. Similar to several other notions of the Victorian era, the panic associated with consumption of wild lettuce was never proved scientifically.
It has been found that the milky substance given out by wild lettuce contains lactucopicrin, lactucic acid, sesquiterpene lactone and lactucin. In addition, this plant also encloses flavonoids that are based on aesculin, coumarins, quercetin, cichoriin and n-methyl-b-phenethylamine as well as a maximum of 60% latex, which forms the raw material for manufacturing rubber. As this plant contains high amounts of latex, experiments were undertaken during the World War II to find if it could be used as a substitute rubber source. Unfortunately, plenty of lettuce is required to collect sufficient latex to manufacture a tire and, hence, this potential industry never became a reality.
Although the idea to manufacture tires from the latex given out by wild lettuce flopped miserably, this herb has been successfully used for medicinal purposes. In 1931, herbalist Maude Grieve had written that the drug produced from wild lettuce is similar to weak opium, but, unlike opium, it does not have the inclination to cause stomach disorders. This medicament is used in small doses in the form of a narcotic and sedative. It is interesting to note that when people take heroin for the first time, it results in vomiting, which is possibly the body’s own way of indicating that taking heroin is wrong. Besides opium, even taking substances derived from it have an inclination to cause stomach upsets. However, this is not so with wild lettuce.
The 1917 edition of the Servall Company’s catalogue on therapeutic plants emphasizes that wild lettuce was found to be very effective in alleviating coughs and providing relief from nervous annoyance and also helpful in promoting sleep and could be used safely when using other narcotic medications like opium was considered to be offensive. This catalogue was published during the period when it was still easy to obtain opium and cocaine as non-prescription medicaments. Like in those days, in contemporary times also use of this type of narcotics to treat pain is considered to be offensive for several reasons. The least important reason among them is the fact that these narcotics are also very addictive.
Opium poppy is used to prepare a very potent drug - heroin, which is among the extremely addictive medications. In fact, till date, heroin is considered to be among the most hazardous substances that have been produced from plants ever.
Very similar to the passion vine, this herb is also employed to inhibit the functioning of the nervous system. This is the main reason why drugs prepared from wild lettuce are extremely effectual in treating conditions like insomnia, anxiety, hysteria, colic pains, muscle spasms, agonizing menstruation, hurting digestion and annoying coughs. Nevertheless, since wild lettuce is a somewhat potent medication, the therapeutic use of this herb has been confined to providing relief from pains. Like in the case of any other painkiller, people should essentially exercise caution while taking medical formulations prepared with or containing wild lettuce.
Incidentally, similar to the opium the milk like sap or latex of the prickly lettuce hardens and transforms into a brownish color when kept in the open. This material is very much similar to opium in appearance and smell and is known as lactucarium. As mentioned earlier, the herb has been valued over the ages for it medicinal properties. While people included wild lettuce in their feast menus with a view to avoid intoxication, women who had given birth recently used a tea prepared with the herb to enhance lactation or milk production by the mammary glands. Many herbal medicine practitioners also recommended the use of wild lettuce as a diuretic as also a lotion to treat chapped skin. Many people find wild lettuce bitter to taste, but it is said to be horses' delight.
Among its multiple therapeutic benefits, wild lettuce is used as a tranquilizer and may be given to adults and children alike to ensure sound sleep at night. It is also useful for cooling down anxiety or strong emotions. Many physicians extensively recommend the herb to treat nervousness and excitement in kids. Combined with other herbs like licorice, wild lettuce is also used to cure coughs. At the same time, many are of the opinion that the herb is useful in restraining the sexual drive. In addition, wild lettuce is also used as an effective pain reliever.
The entire wild lettuce plant contains a high amount of milk-like latex, which streams out easily from the wounds made on the leaf and stem of the plant. When the liquid is exposed to the air, it dries up and solidifies. The sap or latex given out by this plant encloses a substance called ‘lactucarium’, which possesses antispasmodic, anodyne, diuretic, digestive, tranquilizing, narcotic and hypnotic attributes. In fact, lactucarium causes an effect that is comparatively much weak compared to opium. However, unlike taking opium or any of its derivatives, wild lettuce does not cause any stomach disorder or digestive problem. In addition, it is also not addictive. Among other things, this medication is used internally to treat nervousness, sleeplessness, neuroses, whooping coughs, dry coughs, hyperactivity or excitement in children and also alleviates rheumatic pain.
In young wild lettuce plants, lactucarium is present in lesser amounts and the concentration of this substance is most when the plants are in bloom.
Commercial harvesting of lactucarium involves cut the plant heads and collecting the plant sap in china vessels many times daily till its content depletes in the plant completely. Perhaps, this species of lettuce contains the maximum concentration of lactucarium. In addition to lactucarium, wild lettuce also encloses a substance called ‘hyoscyamine’ - a potent depressant that works on the parasympathetic nervous system. Instead of using the sap, you may also use an infusion prepared from the fresh or dried up flowering wild lettuce plant.
People using wild lettuce or any formulation using the plant ought to be very cautious while using it and should always use it under the direct administration of an experienced medical practitioner. You should know that even taking usual doses of this plant sap may lead to cardiac paralysis causing death. A number of medical practitioners are of the view that the side effects of using wild lettuce are owing to the mental state of the patient and not the medication itself. The milky latex given out by wild lettuce leaves and stem is also applied topically to cure warts. In addition, the sap is also used to prepare a homeopathic remedy, which is prescribed for treating coughs, chronic catarrh, flatulence, distended liver and disorders related to the urinary tract.
Habitat and cultivation
Wild lettuce is a commonly growing plant in all parts of Europe and is found in abundance in the open areas and along the pavements. The herb is commercially cultivated in countries like Austria, France, Germany and Scotland. The herb also grows in waste lands and along the embankments. The herb is collected in summer between July and August when the plant is in blossom. Harvesters cut the apex of wild lettuce and rub it several times in chinaware to extract the herb's juice or sap. The sap is then warmed a little and tapped to bring it out of its solid cup shape. Next, the substance is cut into small parts and dehydrated for future use.
In the United States, importers get the wild lettuce extract from Germany via England and use it to adulterate opium. The substance is normally availed in uneven, reddish-brown chunks that are of the dimensions of large peas with somewhat decaying outer surface.
It may be mentioned here that all varieties of lettuce encloses some percentage of narcotic sap and among them Lactuca virosa has the maximum concentration of narcotic juice. The other varieties of lettuce include L. scariola commonly known as prickly lettuce, L. altissima, L. Canadensis or wild lettuce commonly found in America and L. sativa also known as the garden lettuce. While cultivation of the last variety of lettuce has significantly reduced the narcotic sap content in it, the herb is still used as an ingredient for lotions to cure skin disorders owing to sunburn and coarseness. In the ancient times people valued the lettuces for its calming and energizing properties.
The latex contains sesquiterpene lactones (including lactucopicrin and lactucerin); the leaves also contain flavonoids and coumarins. The sesquiterpene lactones have a sedative effect.
The wild lettuce may be taken both as an infusion and tincture.
Side effects and cautions
People using the herb wild lettuce for therapeutic purposes should exercise precautions, because a number of incidences of poisoning due to this plant have been reported. However, such incidences are extremely rare.