Foraging wild lettuce for a good night’s sleep

Foraging wild lettuce                              (Lactuca virosa and L.serriola)          Asteraceae family 

Discover how you can get a good night’s sleep by foraging wild lettuce!

There are a number of herbs that can help with sleep related issues. The wild lettuce plants are some of the easiest to find, identify and use. This article reveals why foraging wild lettuce can help your sleep and therefore your health.

We have two commonly found wild lettuce species growing wild here in Britain. When you are foraging wild lettuce in larger urban areas, you will often see both. The major difference between the species is the leaf shape. Both plants can be used, and are shown here..

Wild lettuce plants are the ancestors of the common garden lettuces (Lactuca sativa). There are around 100 species in the genus. The generic name Lactuca comes from the Latin word lac – meaning milk. All lettuces produce lots of milky white latex when cut.

Wild lettuce was one of a number of plants formerly used in a well-known anaesthetic recipe, employed before surgery during the middle ages (12th – 15th centuries). The mixture, called ‘dwale’, was administered so as “…to make a man sleep whilst men cut him“. 

Botanical description

A typical sight you will see when foraging wild lettuce in early-mid spring

Our wild lettuces are variable annual or biennial herbs. In any case, they will be seen growing as a rosette of leaves in the first part of the year, and then by mid-summer this gives rise to its branched flowering stems. These stems are hollow (as are many herbaceous biennials and perennials).

Lactuca virosa has sessile, oblong-lanceolate shaped, and waxy grey-green coloured leaves. These are produced alternately on a red stem that is always prickly.

The single line of prickles running down the prominent mid-rib on the underside of a wild lettuce leaf.

Its leaves are distinguished by a single ridge of curved prickles borne on the undersides of the leaf, running along the prominent mid-vein. Our other common wild lettuce (L.serriola) has pinnately-lobed leaves.

The leaves of both species are usually found with undulating margins, and can grow to 25 cm long. Often, the leaves are found standing quite erect in their rosette, although as the plant prepares for flowering, they are found clasping the flowering stem, resulting in an almost arrow-like base to the leaf.

The branched inflorescence of wild lettuce just coming into flower and ready to harvest

The inflorescence is borne on the many-branched upper portion of the flowering stem. They are composite, and individually about 11-13 mm wide, with 7-12 yellow ray florets rising from a narrow involucre (8-12 mm long). In flower the plant can reach heights of up to 200 cm.

The flowers are on show from July onwards and are superseded by a white, hairy pappus, which spreads the tiny seeds far and wide on the wind.

More information on the daisy plant family, and ten other important plant families for foragers to know, can be found in my article on using plant family patterns to aid identification in the field.

Habitats to look in when foraging wild lettuce

Although it does appear occasionally in more rural setings, foraging wild lettuce is most successful in the urban environment
Foraging wild lettuce is most successful in the urban environment

The wild lettuces love the urban environment, but are noted for their apparent shyness of the countryside…well, at least to my eyes. They will however, get a foothold in any part of the urban jungle. A quick look at these two distribution maps of Lactuca virosa and Lactuca serriola will show how widespread the plants are and if they are found in your area. 

Take a look in the summer and you will see the wild lettuce appearing in many situations. It loves growing out of the bases of walls, pavement cracks or crevices, kerbstones, road-sides, waste-ground and disturbed soils. This seems to point to the conditions of its origins, believed to be Asia, where it would be most happy in the sun and on poorer, free-draining soils.

Parts used Leaves, flower-buds, latex.

Harvest Best just before the flowers open. Active constituents are in higher concentrations at this time, in comparison to material fromyounger plants.

Key constituents Sesquiterpene lactones ‘lacturcarium’ (including lactupicrin and lactucerin); coumarin (aesculin); flavonoids (including apigenin, luteolin, quercetin and glycosides); proteins; sugars; resins; alkaloids.

Actions Anti-tussive, sedative, relaxant, bitter.

A typical wild lettuce pre-flowering stem, displaying alternately-spaced leaves. Pinch them off to get lactucarium flowing.

Pharmacology and uses Wild lettuces are best known for their relaxant and sedative actions. An alcoholic extract will show sedative properties, causing a reduction in motor activity and behaviour. However, lactucarium does not pass readily through the blood brain barrier and it is thought the effects may arise from peripheral and visceral actions below the neck, rather than above it.

Lactucarium has been used successfully in the treatment of morphine addiction because it has similar, if milder, anodyne-sedative effects. The compound lactucarium is a mixture of a number of substances and was also reportedly used to adulterate opium. This all gave rise to the nickname – ‘lettuce opium’.

You can discover more about medicinal plant constituents and actions in a previous post published last year.

Wild lettuce has been used successfully for treating both nervous excitability and insomnia. Scientific evidence regarding its abilities to assist with chronic and acute  coughs are thin on the ground, but notwithstanding the lack of published scientific papers; effectiveness could be measured through its repeated traditional use as an anti-tussive by herbalists for hundreds of years. We need to always remember that science doesn’t hold anything like all the answers.

Wild lettuce flowers coming into bloom

Wild lettuce was in a number of cough remedies before full implementation of the recent E.U directive, although how many it appears in now, I’m unsure. The fact that the plant is so easily found, means it’s really simple to go foraging wild lettuce and make your own.

The cultivated garden lettuce was immortalised in the Beatrix potter’s children’s books starring Peter Rabbit. In the tales, Peter’s mum used to give him lettuce to eat last thing at night, for its soporific (sleep inducing) qualities. A number of herbal books will also testify to the gentle sleep inducing powers of eating lettuce last thing at night.

The pinnately-lobed leaf of our other common wild lettuce, Lactuca serriola

The wild lettuce is a much stronger sedative than the cultivated varieties and can often be found in sleep-inducing herbal preparations combined with hops, valerian, lime flowers and passionflower. 

Toxicity has generally been regarded as low, but there are cases of people who have eaten large quantities of wild lettuce, then presenting themselves to hospitals suffering from various manifestations of wild lettuce toxicity. These included: decreased level of consciousness, agitation, dry mucosa, mydriatic pupils (pupils dilating), urinary retention and hypoactive bowel sounds.

As ever with plants from the daisy family, as ever there is a warning for people who suffer allergic reactions to other members of this large plant family.

Wnat to know more? Then why not book a place on my upcoming foraging walks.

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