Updated: May 2, 2021
Some of the best medicines are the ones right under our nose; underrated and underutilized. Often they are the weeds or the discarded parts of a plant. They are also often the most readily accessible and the least likely to experience population collapse if harvested. Gathering wild “weeds” does require a bit of basic knowledge about botanical morphology and plant ID. Those are skills I encourage everyone to learn, but if we are going to bring back folk medicine into every home, we need to return to an even more elemental practice: kitchen herbalism. Even for people who grow their own vegetables and are very familiar with plants in that way, foraging can be intimidating. Exploring plants we’re already familiar with in new ways (or more accurately, in very old ways that are new to us) even if they are merely our garden produce or vegetables from the grocery store is a great way to step out into the world of herbalism.
Many foragers and herbalists are familiar with Lactuca virosa, Wild Lettuce, and Lactuca serriola, Prickly Lettuce, but how many times have you heard of using Garden Lettuce, Lactuca sativa, as medicine? It exudes the same milky white latex, a type of sesquiterpene lactone, as its wild cousins, and thus has many of the same medicinal qualities. And while the wild lettuces require a bit more experience and care with dosage, cultivated garden lettuce carries less risk of toxicity. It is worth noting that sesquiterpene lactones can cause contact dermatitis in some.
The name Lactuca is derived from the latin word lactis meaning “milk.” Lactucarium, also known as lettuce opium, is the milky latex responsible for much of the plant’s therapeutic action. If you have ever chopped up a head of fresh Romaine lettuce and noticed the white, bitter sap oozing out, that is lactucarium. L. sativa contains about one third of the lactucarium as L. virosa and a little over half as much as L. serriola. The Romaine lettuce variety contains higher concentrations of lactucarium than red or green lettuces. All of these lettuces are introduced species in the United States, however we do have several native species of lettuce, including Lactuca canadensis which is native to most of the US and Canada.
Now one of the most popular vegetables in the world, lettuce was held in high esteem throughout much of history as a valuable food and medicine. It has been cultivated since ancient times for at least 5,000 years. First bred and grown in Egypt, its aphrodisiac and stamina-increasing effects were recognized by ancient Egyptian practitioners, and was considered to be the favored food of Min, a god of sex and fertility. Oilseed lettuce was primarily what was grown, which does not produce a full rosette of leaves. Instead it bolts early, forming a long, thin stem with scant narrow leaves. It makes a bit more sense to learn that lettuce was a phallic symbol which represented Min when you consider ancient lettuce morphology. Bet you never thought you'd be doing that. Welcome to botany.
Romaine lettuce, Lactuca sativa L. var. longifolia, also known as Cos Lettuce, got its name from its place origin: The Isle of Cos. This was the birthplace and primary place of practice of the ancient greek physician Hippocrates, who used the plant to treat insomnia. Lettuce was mentioned in the Hippocratic corpus, specifically in On Regimen in Acute Diseases. It was often boiled, served with vinegar and oil, or its seeds pressed into oil.
It is a wonderful anodyne, antispasmodic, and sedative. Lactucarium has been shown to have pain-relieving effects similar to that of non-steroidal anti-inflammatories. Being on the more potent sedative spectrum, it is considered a hypnotic with notable sleep-promoting effect. The bitter and spasmolytic actions of the plant make it a valuable digestive remedy as well. That bitter component increases the production and secretion of bile from the liver, improving lipid digestion and nutrient absorption. Lettuce has a slightly demulcent quality, the seeds especially, and paired with that antispasmodic action makes an effective remedy for dry, spastic coughs. I love the doctrine of signatures this plant exhibits as well; lettuce is also galactagogue, meaning it can promote the production and let down of breast milk.
Nicholas Culpeper wrote of lettuce in The English Physitian: “Cold and moist, cools the inflammation of the stomach, commonly called heart-burning; provokes sleep, resists drunkenness, and takes away the ill effects of it; cools the blood, quenches thirst, breeds milk, and is good for choleric bodies, and such as have a frenzy, or are frantic. It is more wholesome eaten boiled than raw.”
Consuming garden lettuce varieties, such as Romaine, as part of your regular diet is a great way to incorporate its mild calmative action, but if you are interested in working with lettuce more on the medicine spectrum, wait until it flowers. While most people compost their bolted lettuce due to its bitterness, this is actually the best time to harvest it for its medicinal qualities--at the beginning flowering period. The stems can be scored to allow the latex to dry before collection, or you can simply collect the leaves and dry them whole. Lettuce leaves can be made into tea or tinctured, but they also make a lovely addition to a bath. Simply make a strong warm infusion of the fresh or dried leaves and add it to your bath water. The pain relieving and soporific effects make this a really effective remedy for insomnia, especially when the insomnia is aggravated by pain. Lettuce baths are gentle enough for soothing teething infants. One potential side effect of lettuce baths that is not often cautioned about however, is the mocking chuckle your partner will make when they see you in a bathtub full of romaine lettuce. If this occurs, a quick antidote is to educate them about the Egyptian god Min, or make a lettuce pun.
There are many ways to prepare lettuce medicine, including the somewhat involved process of making lactucarium concentrate. However, you do not need to be an adept medicine maker to reap the benefits of lettuce medicine. The beauty of kitchen herbalism is that the mere awareness of foods as medicine encourages the utilization of foods for therapeutic ways. In a world of tinctures and herbal supplements, I encourage you to embrace the humble cup of tea.
So if you have been wanting to dip your toes into herbal medicine, that bolting lettuce in your garden might be an unexpectedly good place to start.