COMMON NAMES: Bitter Lettuce, Wild Lettuce, Green Endive, Lettuce Opium, Laitue Vireuse (French), Latuga Velenosa (Italian), Prickly Lettuce
Generally an annual, although an occasional biennial, wild lettuce grows to a maximum height of six feet and has a pale green central stalk that is sometimes spotted with purple. The erect stem, springing from a brown tap-root, is smooth and pale green, sometimes spotted with purple. There are a few prickles on the lower part and short horizontal branches above. The numerous, large, radical leaves are from 6 to 18 inches long, entire, and obovate-oblong. The stem leaves are scanty, alternate, and small, clasping the stem with two small lobes. The heads are numerous and shortly-stalked, and the pale-yellow corolla are strap-shaped. The rough, black fruit is oval, with a broad wing along the edge, and prolonged above into a long, white beak carrying silvery tufts of hair. The whole plant is rich in a milky latex that flows freely from any laceration. This latex has a bitter taste and a narcotic odour. When dry, it hardens, turns brown, and is known as lactucarium (Ratsch 1998, 312).
Wild lettuce grows best in loosely packed, well-drained soil and blooms during July and August. It is cultivated in Austria, France, Germany and Scotland, and grows wild in many parts of southern and central Europe. It may also be found all across the southern states of North America. It is propagated by scattering the seeds over the ground in spring (Ratsch 1998, 312).
Lactusa virosa is often confused with Lactusa serriola, as the two plants may appear very similar. When bruised, however, Lactusa virosa exhibits a smell very similar to that of opium poppy. Furthermore, fresh Lactusa virosa achenes are very purple or maroon in color (Ratsch 1998, 312).
TRADITIONAL USES: Commonly known as Wild Lettuce or Opium Lettuce, Lactuca virosa is believed to have been used for its psychoactive properties by ancient Egyptians based on its depiction in hieroglyphics.It often appears in Egyptian art associated with the god Min, the god of the desert and of lightening and sandstorms. He is also known as the god of procreation and fertility. Min was symbolically represented by the lettuce and the phallus. The Egyptians held a festival in Min’s honor as a harvest celebration during the first month of summer, when a statue of Min would be carried aloft on a bed of lettuce in a scared ritual procession (Harlan 1986).
The ancient Egyptians purportedly possessed a book of love agents that contained recipes for aphrodisiacs, many of which may have been prepared made with the lactucarium of wild lettuce. The book is long lost, and can only be found in references in ancient texts; therefore the Egyptian’s recipes for aphrodisiacs based upon lettuce are unknown today. Conversely, the ancient Greeks believed that wild lettuce promoted the menses cycle, as well as decreased the libido and inhibited coitus (Harlan 1986).
The Emperor Augustus, the first emperor of the Roman Empire, attributed his recovery from a dangerous illness to wild lettuce. He even built an altar to it and erected a statue in its honor. 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. He sited this as the reason the lactucarium, or juice, of wild lettuce would be added to opium latex, for it was known to possess the properties of an effective pain reliever and sedative sleeping aid (Ratsch 1998, 312).
It has been hypothesized that wild lettuce was the “twelve gods’ herb” that Pliny the Elder, a well-known author, naturalist and philosopher of ancient Rome, praised as a panacea. The Arabic physician Avicenna, who was responsible for establishing the use of opium in Islamic medicine, noted that the juice pressed from wild lettuce seeds provided a sedative effect. Hildegard von Bingen – a highly respected, visionary author of the twelfth century who wrote pioneering texts on the curative powers of natural objects for healing and the medicinal uses of plants, animals, trees and stones – helped to establish the psychoactive reputation of wild lettuce in her writings (Ratsch 1998, 311).
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: The sap of wild lettuce is extracted by cutting the tops of the plant and then squeezing and scraping the latex repeatedly into ceramic vessels until it the supply is exhausted. The resulting resin may be released from the vessel by slightly warming it and tapping the bottom. The latex is then cut into quarters and dried. The dried latex may be dissolved in alcohol or smoked as pure resin or in a smoking blend together with herbs such as Cannabis or thorn apple (Miller 1985).
In the United States from Germany via England, wild lettuce is reportedly used as an adulterant for opium, much like what Dioscorides wrote about thousands of years ago. This adulterated form of opium is usually distributed in an irregular, reddish-brown mass the size of a large pea, which is frequently moldy on the outside. In the United States, the German and French wild lettuce lactucarium is considered inferior to the British product. Pure wild lettuce extract is also used by many as a substitute for opium (Voogelbreinder 2009, 210).
Lactucarium is not easily powdered, and is only slightly soluble in boiling water, though it does soften and become flexible. Lactucarium prepared with boiling water and then filtered is clear, but upon cooling, the filtrate becomes turbid.
The Hopi smoke the dried resin, or sap, obtained from the plant. The flower is cut off and the sap that runs from the stem is collected. Each day, for a few weeks, another bit is cut from the stem and more sap is collected. This sap is then air-dried and smoked in ritual. (Similar effects are achieved with the dried leaves). The Hopi believe that induced dream states contain more information about reality than the conscious waking state. Wild lettuce is said to enhance the vividness of dreams when smoked prior to sleep (Miller 1985).
A modern method used to take wild lettuce is to dry the leaves and roots and smoke them. Yet another technique is to heat, not boil, the leaves in water for at least eight hours and then remove the liquid. The lactucarine (active chemical) leaches into the water solution. Once the water has evaporated, the result is a black gum that is often smoked. This resin must be sealed in plastic to prevent it from drying out. An effective dose is generally about one ounce of dried wild lettuce leaves or approximately one-half gram of the extract per person.
MEDICINAL USES: In homeopathy, Lactuca virosa is said to affect the brain and circulation. It is said to cause impotence, feelings of lightness and tightness in the chest, cold and tremors. It has sedative, cough-suppressant, and analgesic effects, and has been used as a sleep aid. All species of lettuce contain some quantity of narcotic alkaloids; Lactuca virosa has the most, followed by Lactuca scariola, or Prickly Lettuce, Lactuca altissima, Lactuca Canadensis, or Wild Lettuce of America, and Lactuca sativa, or Garden Lettuce. Cultivation has lessened the narcotic properties of the latter, although it is still used for making a dermatological lotion useful in treating sunburn and alleviating roughness (Brown & Malone 1978). The Ancients held wild lettuce in high esteem for its cooling and refreshing properties, and made from it a decoction taken to relieve the pain from scorpion stings and spider bites.
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: Lactuca virosa has been found to contain lactucic acid, lactucopicrin, 50 to 60 per cent lactucerin (lactucone) and lactucin. The effects of smoking L. virosa have been compared to those of Atropa belladonna, kava and opium. Reported effects include languid dream states and aphrodisiac highs. The sedative effects are said to be due to the sesquiterpene lactones found in the latex. Wild lettuce is also very useful in entering meditative trance states, and is a powerful tool for dream enhancement if smoked just before going to sleep (Miller 1985).
Brown, J.K., and M.H. Malone. “‘Legal Highs’ – Constituents, Activity, Toxicology, and Herbal Folklore.” Clinical Toxicology 12, no. 1 (1978): 1–31.
Harlan, J.R. “Lettuce and the Sycamore: Sex and Romance in Ancient Egypt.” Economic Botany 40, no. 1 (1986): 4–15.
Miller, R.A. The Magical and Ritual Use of Aphrodisiacs. New York: Destiny Books, 1985.
Ratsch, Christian., The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and its Applications. Rochester: Park Street Press, 1998.
Voogelbreinder, Snu, Garden of Eden: The Shamanic Use of Psychoactive Flora and Fauna, and the Study of Consciousness. Snu Voogelbreinder, 2009.