Introduction to Wild Lettuce
Wild Lettuce is a plant in the Lactuca genus in the family Asteraceae (or Compositae), also known as Lactuca silvestris or Wiestia virosa
Origin: Europe, comes from the Mediterranean uplands. Indigenous to south west Europe, North Africa and West Asia. (A. Stojakowska, J.Malarz, W. Kisiel)
Range: Europe, including Britain, Central Russia and W. Asia, also distributed in other regions of the Northern Hemisphere, including America.
Other names: Bitter Lettuce, Opium Lettuce, Poisonous Lettuce, Laitue vireuse, Sałata jadowita, Rakutu-Karyumu-So.
The whole plant is rich in a milky bitter sap that flows freely from any wounds. The sap changes its colour to yellow at first and then brownish, hardens and dries when in contact with the air. It is harvested in the summer when it is in flower (that's when the plant puts its energy into mating). How long it will live depends on your growing season. The sap contains "lactucarium", which is used in medicine for its anodyne, antispasmodic, digestive, diuretic, hypnotic, narcotic and sedative properties. This species is probably the richest supply of lactucarium.
Concentrations of lactucarium are low in young plants and most concentrated when the plant comes into flower. It is collected commercially by cutting the heads of the plants and scraping the juice into china vessels several times a day until the plant is exhausted. The liquid from the stem is the most potent part of the plant.
Physical characteristicsLactuca virosa is a biennial herb with a fusiform, thick, branched root. In the first year of vegetation it produces a rosette of basal leaves and in the second year an erect stem (60-180cm) branched in the upper part. The flowering period falls in June-August but this can be a bit variable and climate dependent. Its flowers are yellow, ligulate, collected in detached, elongated pyramidal panicles. Leaves are bluish-green, with prickles on the bottom side along the veins, basal - egg-shaped or oblongly oval (15-20cm long), upper – small – sagittate. The roots, leaves and stems produce white latex which darkens in an open air. (A. Stojakowska, J.Malarz, W. Kisiel)
Habitat: It grows singly or in clusters, on rocky soil and as a ruderal plant on plains and uplands up to 1000m above sea level (Hallier 1887, Hegi 1929, Bremer 1994). Grassy places by roads, canals, etc. and on banks near the sea, usually on calcareous soils. It requires well-drained moist medium soils, a light sandy loam and a sunny position. It cannot grow in the shade. The plant prefers acidic, neutral and basic (alkaline) soils.
All parts of the plant, but most of all the sap, contain 0,5-0,9% bitter sesquiterpene lactones: lactucin (C15H16O5) and its ester, lactucopicrin (5-9% respectively in dried plant material). (They are the sedative acting sesquiterpene lactones). Other identified compounds are:
Wild lettuce has been found to contain lactucic acid, lactucopicrin, 50 to 60 per cent lactucerin (lactucone) and lactucin.
- guaianolide (11Beta,13-dihydrolactucerine, 8-deoxylactucine, glycoside, jaquineline and zaluzanine-derivates.
- triterpene-alcohols (lactucerol),
a melampolglycoside (lactuside A)
[National institute of public health and the environment of the Netherlands. RIVM "Smartshops, overview of products, claimed effect and their medical-toxicological relevance." 1999]
Flavonoids based on Quercetin, coumarin, lactucin, cinchonine, aesculin, N-methyl, b-Phenylethylamine.
The raw material (in raw material) is: essential oils, mannitol, alkaloids, b-amyrin, organic acids.
L. virosa has not been phytochemically studied in detail. Earlier studies were focused on the consituents of lactucarium. According to the literature (Hegnauer 1964, 1989, List and Horhammer 1973) it contains sesquiterpene lactones (lactucin and lactucocpicrin, triterpenes (taraxasterol and its acetate, beta-amyrin, germanicol, isolupeol, organic acids, carbohydrates and proteins. Oil from the seeds yielded fatty acids (oleic, linolic, palmitic and stearic), alfa-tocopherol and squalene. The presence of mydriatic substance of unknown structure was also reported.
A detailed phytochemical study of the 1-year-old roots of Lactuca virosa, which were proved to be active in the pharmacological tests mentioned above, has been completed very recently (Kisiel and Barszcz 1997). From the roots, 15 guaiane- and germacrane-type sesquiterpene lactones were isolated. Of the guaianolides, lactucin-like and zaluzanin C-like compounds were identified. Of the germacranolides, germacrolide- and melampolide like derivatives were characterized.
Along with sesquiterpene lactones, other secondary metabolites were isolated from the transformed roots. They were identified as alfa and beta-amyrin, lupeol, taraxasterol and stigmasterol.
The sesquiterpene lactones are undesired constituents of the garden lettuce due to their bitter taste.” (A. Stojakowska, J.Malarz, W. Kisiel)
Since early ages, wild lettuce has enjoyed a special status as a beneficial therapeutic plant and was treasured as a tranquilizer and pain killer. Lettuce Opium - Lactucarium - is well known in medicine that pre-dates the industrial revolution. Used as a sedative when actual opium is not available, it induces a "hypnotic state marked by strange dreams".
The latex from aerial parts known as Lactucarium germanicum, Opium frigidum or lettuce opium was mentioned in Dutch, Spanish and German (until 1890) pharmacopoeias. It was know as an antitussive and sedative remedy in ancient times (Dioscorides, Hippokrates, Gallen) and was used to produce analgesia before the introduction of chloroform. In 1799 Cox from Philadelphia noticed similarity of pharmacological effects caused by lactucarium to those produced by poppy opium. In the 19th century lactucarium, as well as tinctures, extracts and syrups prepared from the plant were widely used in official medicine. The interest in the plant at that time led to the first isolation of two major constituents of lactucarium – lactucin and lactucopicrin, by Ludwig and Kromayer in 1847 (cited by Spath et al. 1951). Later, initial pharmacological and clinical studies were carried out and it was generally accepted that the compounds were responsible for the opiate resembling activity of the plant (Hegi1929; Frost 1937). In the 1930s, Knoll A.G. pharmaceutical company introduced Latucyl – an antitussic drug containing 0.2g sesquiterpene lactones per dose. (A. Stojakowska, J.Malarz, W. Kisiel)
It is used in the treatment of chronic catarrh, coughs, swollen liver, flatulence and ailments of the urinary tract.
The sap has also been applied externally in the treatment of warts.
A homeopathic remedy is made from the plant.
Some physicians believe that any effects of this medicine are caused by the mind of the patient rather than by the medicine. About half the people who try it report feeling nothing while the other half report positive effects. People who only use drugs occasionally (or not at all) will benefit the most from this substance. In most cases, people who consume marijuana or other drugs on a daily or almost daily basis, don't feel much.
The toxic ingredients of the milky sap are bitter sesquiterpene lactones, lactucin and lactucocpicrin. Lactucin is much more active than lactucopicrin. Both substances exhibit centrally sedating and depressive action (in relatively small amounts as caffeine antagonists), much weaker than morphine, though. In contrast to morphine they have no analgesic properties.
As usual, the plant has flavanoids, an antioxidant ( such as those in normal tea) as well as coumarins, and n methyl beta phenethylamine.
Effects of Wild LettuceAnodyne; Antispasmodic; Digestive; Homeopathy; Hypnotic; Narcotic; Sedative; Tonic.
[RAW TRANSLATION ALERT]
Strong hypnotic, expectorant, hypotonic and sedative. Folklore medicine used lactucarium as an anti-asthmatic. In the past milky sap of Wild Lettuce when there was not enough opium. It is compared to opium sometimes, although it’s much milder. It acts as a sedative, causes relaxation and euphoria. In spite of having similar properties to opium it contains no alkaloids struturally similar to opiates and it doesn’t cause nausea typical for opiates.
Wild lettuce is a natural sedative, it is very good for an over-excited nervous system. It is particually good for hyperactive children, and can be of considerable help with symptoms of over-excitement or inability to sleep. Known as "lettuce opium" it is also helpful for adults who suffer from insomnia, restlessness, anxiety or neurosis.
Its natural tranquilising effects also help the condition of the individual if suffering from whooping cough, or coughs in general. It can also relieve colic type pain, including menstrual pains and rheumatism. Wild lettuce can help reduce the feeling of restlessness, excitability and insomnia. Furthermore it can relieve colic pains in the intestines and uterus and also muscular pains related to rheumatism.
Lactucarium has the effects of a feeble opium, but without its tendency to cause digestive upsets, nor is it addictive. It is taken internally in the treatment of insomnia, anxiety, neuroses, hyperactivity in children, dry coughs, whooping cough, rheumatic pain etc.
Using Wild LettuceLactuca Virosa (Opium Lettuce/ Wild Lettuce)
Ways of administration:
Used: extracts, tinctures, dried leaves, infusions.
An infusion of the fresh or dried flowering plant can be used.
Wild Lettuce cut leaves, 1-2 teaspoonsful per cup of hot water up to 3 times a day. It has a bitter flavouring, and is best used as a tea with lemon or with sugar (honey would be better).
Herbal Tincture, Extraction Ratio 1:3, Alcohol Vol. 45%, 2-4ml up to 3 times a day.
LATEX (Lactucarium), Tincture [1:2, 95% alcohol], 1/2 to 1 teaspoon. (6)
Wild lettuce tea
Best way to make a Wild Lettuce extract?
Optimal storage: store in a cool dry place away from direct sunlight.
The dangers of Wild LettuceSounds like an overstatement:
At the height of Wild Lettuce's popularity no cases of toxicity or dependence were observed.
Cases of poisoning caused by this plant have only been recorded very rarely. Can cause drowsiness, or if taken in excess can cause restlessness. Side effects include distorted vision, loss of balance, and in lactating women an increse , substantial, in milk production (galactagogue).
Combinations with Wild Lettuce
- can be combined well with valerian (Valeriana officinalis) as a sleepwell tea
- as a sleep aid and is best mixed with valerian root and hops(Humulus L.)
- for insomnia it combines with valerian and pasque flower (Euphorbia pulcherrima)
- lactucarium was added to opium latex for it was known to possess the properties of an effective pain reliever and sedative sleeping aid (Dioscorides)
- to fight irritable coughs wild lettuce may be combined with wild cherry bark
- about a combination with hydrocodone and Adderall see: Wild lettuce (lactuca virosa) terrible experience (also another recurrence of hyoscine myth)
Different Uses for Wild LettuceDue to its multiple virus resistance Wild Lettuce has been successfully used in breeding programs for the introduction of resistance genes into commercial varieties of the garden lettuce Lactuca sativa L. (Tamaki et al. 1995).
History of Wild LettuceThe history of Wild Lettuce can be traced way back to the ancient Egyptians. Lettuce was depicted on Egyptian paintings 4500 years B.C and the Egyptian god of fertility, Min, is closely tied to the plant and he is often depicted holding a rosette of Lactuca serriola. Min was the god of the desert, of lightening and sandstorms, in addition to being known as the god of procreation and fertility. The lettuce and the phallus symbolically represented Min.
Articles on the Egyptians and the use of Wild Lettuce as an aphrodisiac and sex enhancer:
Egyptians ate lettuce to boost sex drive
(article claiming in the end there are tropane alkaloids in lactucarium)
Min, God of Fertility, Power and the Eastern Desert...
Wild Lettuce was also used by the Romans, and Augustus was said to have raised a statue in honor of the Lettuce infusion that he claimed saved his life. 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 wild lettuce.
The Roman naturalist Gaius Plinius Secundus (23 AD - 79 AD) , better known as Pliny the Elder wrote extensively of Lactuca in his work Naturalis Historia:
Dioscorides, the famed physician, pharmacologist and botanist of ancient Greece who authored the pioneering five volume tome “De Materia Medica” - the precursor to all modern pharmacopeias - described wild lettuce as having effects similar to that of Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy.
In medical practice, Lactuca virosa has been used for over a thousand years as a substitute for opium. The Arab physician that introduced opium to Islamic medicine (Avicenna 980-1036) wrote that the Lactuca virosa produced opium that was similar, but mild in comparison to real opium.
As a food, Lactuca virosa has a history of being used in salads.
Lactucarium (called “opium frigidum”) was in past centuries used together with poison hemlock (Conium L.) and henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) as a narcoticum during surgeries.
Due to a high latex content in the plant material Wild Lettuce was utilized as an alternative source of rubber during the World War II.
Lactucarium was produced by pharmaceutical companies until about the 1940's. With the passing of time Wild Lettuce was replaced with varieties almost completely devoid of medicinal properties.
In mid 70’s Wild Lettuce extracts intended for smoking was sold in USA under trade names of "L'Opium" i "Lettucene".
Growing Wild Lettuce
Lactuca Virosa (Wild Lettuce): very cursory information only.
Legal status of Wild LettuceIs it controlled anywhere at all? Ever was?
More Wild Lettuce SectionsWild Lettuce Experiences : post & read experiences with Wild Lettuce.
Wild Lettuce File Archive : upload and read research & articles on Wild Lettuce.
Wild Lettuce Image Gallery Post and view pictures of Wild Lettuce.
The latest Ethnobotanicals threads
References1. A. Stojakowska, J.Malarz, W. Kisiel “Lactuca virosa: in vitro culture and production of sesquiterpene lactones” in Medicinal and aromatic plants, Volume 11 by Y. P. S. Bajaj.
2. Adam Gottlieb "Legal Highs"
3. David W. Group "Encyclopedia of Mind Enhancing Foods, Drugs and Nutritional Substances"
4.Michael Moore „Herbal Materia Medica 5th edition”
Theodore A. Bischoff, Charles J. Kelley, Yvette Karchesy, Maria Laurantos, Phuc Nguyen-Dinh and Abdul Ghafoor Arefi"Antimalarial activity of Lactucin and Lactucopicrin: sesquiterpene lactones isolated from Cichorium intybus L."
Folklore reports from Afghanistan prior to the wars described the use of aqueous root extracts of Cichorium intybus (L.) as a light-sensitive plant remedy for malaria. Preparative isolation and bioassay against HB3 clone of strain Honduras-1 of Plasmodium falciparum identified the previously known light-sensitive sesquiterpene lactones Lactucin and Lactucopicrin to be antimalarial compounds.