Updated: May 2
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.