Compositae: Asteraceae (Aster Family); Subfamily Cichorioideae, Lactuceae Tribe
Forms and Subspecies
The taxonomy of the wild Lactuca species has not been completely clarified. It is possible that there may be several varieties of Lactuca virosa.
Lactuca agrestis nom. nud.
Lactuca sylvestris nom. nud.
Bitter lettuce, German lactucarium, giftlattich, giftsalat, kompaßpflanze, lactuca agresti, lactucke, laitue vireuse (French), lattichopium, lattig, latuga velenosa (Italian), leberdistel, lettuce, lettuce opium, lopium, prickly lettuce, stinksalat, totenkraut, wild lettuce, wilder lattich
Egyptian grave paintings dated to approximately 4500 B.C.E. depict plants whose appearance is strongly reminiscent of a wild lettuce species or a cultivated form bred from it (Whitaker 1969, 261). There was already some confusion about the name and source of Lactuca pharmacologic material in ancient times (Schneider 1974, 2:222 ff.*). Thus, we still do not know with certainty which lettuce species was known to and used by the ancient Egyptians. It may have been Lactuca scariola L. [syn. Lactuca serriola Torner], Lactuca virosa, or a form of Lactuca sativa (Harlan 1986, 7). The garden salad Lactuca sativapresumably was derived from Lactuca scariola in ancient Egypt (Lindqvist 1960).
Wild lettuce clearly had a ritual (divination) and medicinal significance in ancient times:
The wild lettuce, which the prophets knew as “Titan’s blood,” Zoroaster as pherumbros, the Romans as Lactuca silvatica, is similar to the garden lettuce but has a sturdier stalk, whiter, thinner, coarser, and bitter-tasting leaves. Overall, it is similar in its effects to the poppy, which is why some also mix its juice into opium. . . . It generally is able to make one sleepy and relieve pain. Furthermore, it promotes the catamenia and is also drunk for scorpion and spider stings. The seed is taken like that of the garden lettuce and inhibits pollution and coitus. After it has been dried in the sun, the juice that is pressed from it is stored in earthen vessels like the other juices. (Dioscorides 2.165)
It may be that the “twelve gods’ herb” that Pliny praised as a panacea was a species of Lactuca, perhaps even wild lettuce itself (see Dodecatheon). The Arabic physician Avicenna (= Ibn Sina, 980–1036), who established the use of opium (cf. Papaver somniferum) in Islamic medicine, wrote, “Opium is sometimes also produced from the seeds of Lactuca agrestis (lettuce), this is only mildly sedating” (Qanun, 5.526).
Hildegard von Bingen certainly played a role in establishing the psychoactive reputation of the plant:
The lettuces, which can be eaten, are very cold, and when eaten without spice they make the brain of man empty with their useless juice. . . . But the wild lettuces have almost the same nature. For anyone who would eat lettuces, which are useless and are called weeds, either raw or cooked, would become mad, that is insane, and he will become empty in the core, because those are neither warm nor cold, but simply a useless wind that dries out the fruit of the earth and brings forth no fruit. And those lettuces grow from the foam of the earth’s sweat and are therefore useless. (Physica 1.90/91)
In 1543, Leonard Fuchs depicted a lettuce plant in his Kräuterbuch [Herbal] under the name Lactuca capitata, a wild or already cultivated species of Lactuca (Whitaker 1969, 262).
Wild lettuce was once an important opium substitute (Coxe 1799; Schneider 1974, 2:226*). It has been claimed that some North American Indians smoked lettuce (Miller 1993, 48*). In 1792, a physician in Philadelphia named Kore invented lactucarium, the thickened latex (Bibra 1855, 254*).
The stalks and leaves of the forest lettuce, regarded as the “fourth race of incense spice,” are also said to contain an opium-like juice. Unfortunately, it is no longer possible to botanically identify the plant in question. (Woodcut from Tabernaemontanus, Neu Vollkommen Kräuter-Buch, 1731)
Wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa) in bloom.
Lactucarium, obtained from the latex of wild lettuce, is regarded as an opium substitute.
“There is also a form of white lettuce which the Greeks called opium lettuce because a juice with sleep-promoting powers flows richly within it. It is thought, however, that all lettuce species bring sleep. This was the only species of lettuce that grew in Italy in ancient times and is recalled in the Latin name for lettuce [lactuca], which is derived from the word for milk.”
“The salad or lettuce (Lactuca sativa) increases the milk of the sucklers and lessens the fire of love. The sharp eye of the eagle is said to be due to the fact that it eats lettuce from time to time.”
K. RITTER VON PERGER
DEUTSCHE PflANZENSAGEN [GERMAN PLANT LEGENDS]
“Among the most important attributes of the fertility god Min is lettuce. At the festival of the god, a small bed with this plant was included in the procession. Lettuce was depicted in numerous relief images of Min (and borrowing from him, in a special form of Amun as well, e.g., in the temple of Luxor). The plant was regarded as an aphrodisiac, which also explains its popularity as a cultic gift of offering (preserving the procreative power = life).”
LEXIKON DER GÖTTER UND SYMBOLE DER ALTEN ÄGYPTER [LEXICON OF THE GODS AND SYMBOLS OF THE ANCIENT EGYPTIANS]
Lactuca virosa’s original range was in southern Europe. It now grows wild in many parts of central Europe, where it was once cultivated as a source of lactucarium. Wild lettuce is also widespread in southern North America, where it was introduced from Europe.
Propagation occurs via the seeds (just as with garden salad). The seeds are simply broadcast over the ground in spring (Grubber 1991, 66*). Lettuce prefers loose, well-drained humus soil (topsoil).
Lactuca virosa is an annual or sometimes biennial plant that can grow from 60 to 150 cm tall. It has a round stalk that branches into panicles at the top. The leaves are spinose and toothed, and their midveins have spines on the lower side. The flowers are light yellow and basket-shaped. The blackish fruits are narrow and resemble wings. The plant is most easily recognized by the white latex that flows through all of its parts and issues when the plant is injured.
Lactuca virosa is easily confused with prickly lettuce, Lactuca scariola [syn. Lactuca serriola L.]. The leaves of the latter, however, are deeply incised/retuse. Lettuce is also sometimes confused with various species of the genus Sonchus (cf. Erythroxylum coca).
—Thickened juice (latex): lactucarium,198 lactu carium germanicum
Preparation and Dosage
The dried leaves can be smoked alone or in smoking blends with other herbs.
Lactucarium is obtained in a variety of ways:
The juice of the plant can be obtained by using an electric juicer and then drunk. More frequently, the upper part of the plant is cut repeatedly and the milk that emerges collected. This is allowed to dry and can then be smoked. The entire plant can also be dried and smoked. The largest single dosage of lactucarium was 0.3 g, the maximum daily dosage 1 gram. (Schuldes 1995, 46*)
Lactucarium can be obtained simply by collecting the latex and allowing it to dry. The dried latex then can be either dissolved in alcohol and drunk or mixed together with other herbs (mint, hemp, thorn apple; cf. smoking blends) and smoked:
Lettuce opium was often used by North American Indians who smoked the dried resin or sap obtained from the plant. They cut the flower heads off, gathered the sap that drained, and then let it air dry. This process was repeated over a two-week period by cutting just a little bit off the top each time. (Miller 1985, 96)
The leaves and lactucarium were also ingredients in the so-called witches’ ointments.
A psychoactive dosage of wild lettuce leaves is 28 g (Miller 1985, 96*). When used for medicinal purposes, the largest single dosage of lactucarium is 0.3 g, while the total daily dosage is 1.0 g (Roth et al. 1994, 444*).
Lettuce was sacred to the popular Egyptian god Min (Keimer 1924), who was already being worshipped in the time of the Old Kingdom. The Greeks saw Min as a form of their lusty god Pan (cf. Arundo donax). Min was usually portrayed with an erect penis. He was the god of the desert, the lightning, and the sandstorm as well as a god of fertility and procreation. He wore a headdress made of ostrich feathers. His symbols were the phallus and the lettuce. His festival, which was a kind of harvest celebration, was celebrated during the first month of summer. At this festival, a statue of Min was carried in a sacred procession on a bed of lettuce (Harlan 1986, 6).
Lettuce was frequently depicted in Egyptian works of art and is often found in association with representations of the god Min (Lurker 1987, 124). Min’s ceremonial procession is depicted in many wall paintings in buildings from the time of Ramses II, Ramses III, Herihor, Seti I, Amenhotep III, Sosestris, and Thutmosis III (Harlan 1986, 6).
Aphrodisiacs were once made from lettuce and the lactucarium it yields. The ancient Egyptians possessed a book of love agents, which has unfortunately been lost. For this reason, the Egyptians’ recipes for aphrodisiacs based upon lettuce are unknown. Oddly enough, the ancient Greeks attributed lettuce with the opposite effect, namely that of an anaphrodisiac (Harlan 1986, 8).
In the modern period, lactucarium was used as a sedative and as a substitute for opium (cf. Papaver somniferum).
In homeopathy, Lactuca virosa is used according to the medical description (which differs from that for Lactuca sativa) to treat sleeplessness, dry cough, and other ailments (Roth et al. 1994, 444*):
This agent primarily affects the brain and the circulatory system. Delirium tremens with sleeplessness, cold and tremor. Hydrothorax and aszites. Impotence. Feelings of lightness and tightness that affect the entire body, especially the chest. It appears to be a true lactagogue. Pronounced affects upon the extremities. (Boericke 1992, 460*)
Lactucarium contains the sedative sesquiterpene lactone/bitter substance (guaianolide) lactucine (C15H16O5) and its p-hydroxyphenylacetic acid ester, lactupicrine (= lactucopicrine),200 along with triterpene alcohols (lactucerol), a melampolglycoside (lactuside A), and other guaianolides (11β,13-dihydrolactucine, 8-deoxylactucine, jacquineline, zaluzanin derivatives) (Stojakowska et al. 1993, 1994). The older literature speaks of the presence of a “hyoscyamine-like alkaloid” (cf. tropane alkaloids) (Frohne and Pfänder 1983, 67 f.*).
It should be noted that opium-like alkaloids are also present in garden salad or lettuce (Lactuca sativa L.) (Bibra 1855, 259*). When the cabbage lettuce forms its stalk, a white, milky sap develops that contains alkaloids with sedative effects (Rätsch 1995a*, 1995c*). The variety Lactuca sativa var. capitata L., which is grown for use in salads, is also known as lettuce opium and French lactucarium (Brown and Malone 1978, 23*).
Lactucarium has analgesic, sedative, and cough-suppressing effects (Stojakowska et al. 1993). The effects were once compared to those of the deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) (Harlan 1986, 10). They also have been used to explain the effects of kava (see Piper methysticum). The effects have been described as a “languid dream state” (Miller 1985, 97*) or an aphrodisiac high.
The pioneer Freiheer Ernst von Bibra (1806–1878), who experimented with lactucarium a great deal, came to the following conclusion: “Quite similar to opium, lactucarium from various species and varieties of Lactuca species also possesses somewhat diverging properties, but in its main effects, just as with opium, it is the same” (Bibra 1855, 255*).
The sedative effects are attributed to the sesquiterpene lactones of the guaiane type that occur in the latex and often are present in the form of glycosides (Stojakowska et al. 1994, 93).
Commercial Forms and Regulations
All preparations of Lactuca virosa may be sold without restriction.
Recently, lettuce preparations (such as Lettucene) have been sold as “extra strong” hashish substitutes under such provocative names as hash oil and hashish (see Cannabis indica). These consist of damiana (Turnera diffusa) and extracts of Lactuca sativa and sometimes also contain yohimbé bark (Pausinystalia yohimba).
The flower of Lactuca sativa var. sativa.
A cultivated form of the garden salad (Lactuca sativa cv.), here shown in flower, during which phase it produces a narcotic juice.
See also the entry for Papaver somniferum.
Coxe, John Redman. 1799. Inquiry into the comparative effects of the opium officinarum, extracted from the Papaver somniferum or white poppy of Linnaeus; and of that procured from Lactuca sativa, or common cultivated lettuce of the same author. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, o.s., 4:387–414.
Harlan, Jack R. 1986. Lettuce and the sycomore: Sex and romance in ancient Egypt. Economic Botany 40 (1): 4–15.
Helm, J. 1954. Lactuca sativa L. in morphologischsystematischer Sicht. Kulturpflanze 2:72–129.
Keimer, L. 1924. Die Pflanze des Gottes Min. Zeitschrift für Altägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde 59:140–43.
Lindqvist, K. 1960. On the origin of cultivated lettuce. Hereditas 46:319–50.
Lurker, Manfred. 1987. Lexikon der Götter und Symbole der alten Ägypter. Bern, Munich, and Vienna: Scherz.
Stojakowska, A., J. Malarz, and W. Kisiel. 1994. Sesquiterpene lactones in tissue culture of Lactuca virosa. Planta Medica 60:93–94.
Stojakowska, A., J. Malarz, W. Kisiel, and S. Kohlmünzer. 1993. Callus and hairy root cultures of Lactuca virosa. Planta Medica 59 suppl.: A658.
Whitaker, Thomas W. 1969. Salads for everyone—a look at the lettuce plant. Economic Botany 23:261–64.