Medical care will always be a top priority during a natural disaster or other apocalyptic events. Since you likely can’t make it to the ER, you need to know plant identification techniques to figure out which plants that act as a pain reliever or can help alleviate various health-related issues.
One option for those in North America is wild lettuce. This plant has purported medicinal qualities, but not all wild lettuce is the same. Even worse, you might encounter wild lettuce look-alikes that could wind up poisoning and potentially killing you.
So, to help you avoid the dangers of these wild lettuce imposters, let’s break down what you can expect from this plant and how to identify it.
What is Wild Lettuce?
Technically speaking, a wild lettuce plant is a weed, meaning it’s not grown for any specific purpose (i.e., as a crop). The Latin name is Lactuca Virosa or Lactuca Canadensis, and the plant is a close relative of the dandelion. This one plant goes by a bunch of different names, such as
- Bitter Lettuce
- Opium Lettuce (because of its hallucinogenic properties)
- Acrid Lettuce
- Green Endive
- Strong-Scented Lettuce
- Poison Lettuce
That last term may seem a bit off-putting, and the fact is that wild lettuce is somewhat dangerous. You need to know how to use this plant correctly as a medicinal herb and to avoid compounding any health issues you might have. In fact, the Latin term “virosa” means toxic.
How to Identify Wild Lettuce
Although wild lettuce is a pretty hearty weed, it prefers direct sunlight and areas with lots of water. So, if you’re out hiking, you can likely find some edible plants growing along a stream or riverbank.
Since there are some variations of wild lettuce, you need to get good at spotting each species. This way, you can better identify the plant and make use of it.
Wild lettuce likes sunlight. It is a biennial plant so you can often find it growing during the summer and early fall. July to early October is the primary growing season for this plant.
- Flowers – Not all wild lettuce grows flowers, but wild lettuce flowers look like yellow flowers or dandelions, although some might be orange-ish or reddish.
- Roots – Most wild lettuces have a brown taproot, but some varieties will have a white root. If you cut the stem of wild lettuce, you’ll notice a milky white substance comes out known as lactucarium.
- Seeds – If you spot any seeds or seed heads of Lactuca Virosa, you’ll see that they’re flat and oval-shaped with a beak-looking tip. These wild lettuce seeds are brown and about one inch in diameter.
- Leaves – The green leaves are almost always serrated, and you can usually find hairs growing on the underside of the leaf stem. Some species have short, fat leaves, while other varieties of wild lettuce leaves are longer.
Medicinal Uses for Wild Lettuce
Herbalists have a mixed consensus on whether wild lettuce has health benefits or not. Some sites say that the whole plant’s potency is too low, while others will hail the wild edibles as an invaluable asset. As with all plants, the problem is consistency. Some wild lettuce varieties may be more potent than others, and factors like soil and weather conditions can affect individual plants.
That said, here are some widely accepted benefits of the lettuce tincture:
- Whooping Cough
- Urinary Tract Infections
- Joint and muscle pain relief
- Antimicrobial Effects (when applied topically)
- Pain killers
- Sleep aid
Again, don’t assume that a single plant will be able to cure or treat anything. The pain-relieving properties of the plant can vary from one to the next, and your preparation methods can also affect how well it works. The best way to ingest wild lettuce is to crush the stem and leaves and extract as much of the milky substance as possible.
Is Wild Lettuce Poisonous?
No, wild lettuce is not poisonous, but some of its look-alikes might have higher toxicity and cause various health issues. For example, milk thistle can look somewhat similar to wild lettuce, and it causes gastrointestinal problems. However, you can easily identify a milk thistle by its bright purple flower on top.
Some adverse side effects of wild lettuce can include:
- Anxiety prickles
- Nausea and Vomiting
- Sensitivity to Light
- Breathing Problems
- Heart Palpitations
- Stomach Cramps
We highly recommend sampling a little bit of wild lettuce before ingesting too much. If you start to notice any adverse reactions, avoid taking any more of the substance. Otherwise, you can sample a bit more and see if it does anything.
Other potentially poisonous look-alikes include:
- Water Hemlock
Bottom Line: Use Wild Lettuce Cautiously
As a disclaimer, there aren’t any substantial studies that illustrate the health benefits of wild lettuce. So, you have to rely on your own uses to see whether the plant will have much of an impact. That said, as long as you don’t have any adverse reactions, you can incorporate wild lettuce into your field guidebook. Since it works well as a topical antibacterial agent, you can prevent infections and clean wounds.
FAQs About Wild Lettuce
Does Wild Lettuce Look Poisonous?
This plant doesn’t have all the hallmarks of a “poisonous” plant, but its serrated edges and hairy underside may seem off-putting to some foragers. All homesteaders should look out for poisonous look-alikes.
How Can You Tell if Wild Lettuce is Edible?
Although you can eat small amounts of wild lettuce, it’s best to extract the sap to use for medicinal purposes. Not only are the leaves and stems bitter, but eating raw wild lettuce can lead to adverse reactions, as we listed above.
Is Wild Lettuce the Same as Milk Thistle?
Technically, a version of wild lettuce (Lactuca Serriola) is called milk thistle. However, there is a much different plant (Silybum marianum) that is also called milk thistle. The lettuce version of milk thistle is not toxic, but the marianum variety is. As we mentioned, you can spot this kind of milk thistle by its bright, prickly, purple flower.
Is Prickly Wild Lettuce Edible?
Prickly lettuce is another name for Lactuca serriola, and it’s entirely edible. As with Lactuca virosa, the taste is somewhat bitter, but you won’t encounter as many adverse side effects.