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Wild lettuce is the wild relative of the domesticated lettuce used the world over for salads and other dishes. This plant has historically been used as a sleep aid to help people sleep and relax, and in fact tinctures of wild lettuce were sometimes referred to as “lettuce opium.” This plant can be found growing wild in many regions of the world, and it can also be cultivated from seed. Stores which stock herbal medicines and supplies may carry the seeds, and they can also be ordered directly through nurseries.
Most commonly, people think of Lactuca virosa when they are discussing wild lettuce. This plant superficially resembles the loose leaf lettuce cultivars grown in many gardens. When cut, it exudes a thick, milky sap which can be collected and turned into lactucarium, a concentrated substance which can be used in tinctures and teas. This sap is a type of latex, and in some communities, people smoke the sap much like opium.
Documented use of wild lettuce dates to Ancient Egypt, when the herb was depicted in several works of art. Like opium, it induces calm and drowsiness, but the effects are not as severe or long lasting. Wild lettuce generally creates a state of relaxation for around an hour, and it does not have the detrimental digestive side effects associated with opium.
In addition to being used as a sleep aid, this herb has also been used in some communities to help nursing mothers produce more breastmilk. Studies on wild lettuce have suggested that it contains compounds which can indeed induce lactation, and it also contains compounds which can act as anticoagulants.
Most governments do not regulate the cultivation and use of wild lettuce, and it is generally recognized as safe. People can grow wild lettuce through zone six, planting seeds in well drained, sunny soil in the spring. To harvest the sap, gardeners classically cut the heads of the lettuce and periodically scrape up the sap as it oozes out. More mild tinctures and teas can also be made with the dried leaves, for those who do not want to go through the process of sap collection.
As with many herbs used for medicinal purposes, wild lettuce can be contraindicated for people with certain medical conditions. For this reason, people are strongly encouraged to consult their doctors before using wild lettuce to manage insomnia and other conditions, to ensure that the herb will be safe for their use.
When I think of wild lettuce it reminds me of a friend who planted lettuce just for the wild rabbits in her yard. I had never heard of the kind of wild lettuce mentioned in this article.
I live in a gardening zone that is too cold to grow any wild lettuce leaf, but find it so fascinating that the sap is used to help with sleep, and has effects similar to opium. The nights that I have trouble sleeping, I would have never thought to have some wild lettuce tea.