Wild Lettuces – Lactuca SPP.: Edible & Medicinal Uses of the Opium of Wild Plants

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In Chippewa, odjici’gomin refers to Canada wild lettuce (lactuca canadensis), one of many edible and medicinal wild lettuces (lactuca spp.) you’ll find in Ontario. They are often confused with chicory, dandelion or sow thistles, but fortunately these tall wild lettuces have no poisonous lookalikes. Although, at a glance rattlesnake roots have a similar look and height.

In Haliburton Flora there are four main wild lettuces listed. Wild lettuce AKA tall blue (lactuca biennis), which is native and fairly common in roadside ditches, damp edges of woods, and dry open sandy sites. The native Canada wild AKA tall lettuce (l. canadensis), with 2 varieties listed, is rare and might be found on the edge of the woods near one’s lawn, or in a roadside clearing. Sometimes it is called horseweed due to its massive height, not to be confused with the fleabane. Some may grow upwards of 9 feet tall!

Wild Lettuces – Lactuca SPP.
Wild Lettuces – Lactuca SPP.

Also very rare in our area is native hairy (l. hirsuta) and the nonnative prickly lettuce (l. serriola). Ontario wide there are around 10 species to be found including garden lettuce. Roadsides, parking lots, lawn edges, old fields are where I usually find these herbs.

Wild Lettuces – Lactuca SPP.
Wild Lettuces – Lactuca SPP.

Edible Uses of Wild Lettuces

These ancestors of our grocery store variety lettuces are also edible, but more bitter than their commercial counterparts. Young rosette leaves are the tastiest, perhaps best mixed with other greens. Older leaves can be boiled as a potherb, or steamed freshly wet from the rinsing. If you eat too much of it raw you may get an upset stomach. And note there are some warnings below; mainly avoid if pregnant or breastfeeding, and this wild herb isn’t recommended for children either.

In late spring and early summer, young shoots can be prepared like asparagus. A few weeks later, the furled flowerheads can be steamed or boiled before unfurling and blooming. You can still harvest the stalks along with your lettuce “broccoli”.

All parts of lettuce have a slightly narcotic opium-like sap in them, so even as a salad there may be a slight tranquilizing effect. They can be blanched and frozen for when you need a “calm salad”.

The seeds have an edible oil you can use for cooking.

The roots are technically edible, but mildly laxative.

The white sap turns into a reddish brown gum when exposed to air. When fresh it looks like fresh opium latex, perhaps smells like it, and rumour has it even tastes like it.

Medicinal Uses of Wild Lettuces

Wild Lettuces are primarily said to support these body systems:

  • Digestive
  • Integumentary
  • Nervous
  • Reproductive
  • Respiratory

Medicinal tags include Analgesic, Anodyne, Antispasmodic, Hypnotic, Laxative, Nervine, and Sedative. See Medicinal tag key for more information.

Common usage includes the sap/latex for warts, same as dandelion. However, more exciting is the aforementioned opium-likeness of the gum. Opium has been used to sedate, induce sleep and relieve pain. Lettuces are considered a weak alternative to opium at best, but they’re easier on the tummy. The sap is harvested by cutting the stem, and then dried.

Besides usage as a sedative, sleep aid and pain reliever, lettuces have been used for coughs and some skin and digestive conditions. For insomnia you could combine the sap or tincture with valerian root.

Alternative Uses of Chicory Lettuce

The seed oil is used in soapmaking and paints/varnishes.

Wild Lettuces – Lactuca SPP.
Wild Lettuces – Lactuca SPP.

Growing Lactuca SPP.

Not just for “calm salad”, bees and other insects will visit native lettuces. Some moth caterpillars use the species as a host plant including the common looper moth (autographa precationis) and virgin tiger moth (grammia virgo). Salad loving mammals like deer and rabbits will browse it too.

Native lettuce seeds can be collected from the wild (the general rule of thumb is to not take more than 10% of the seeds). They may also be bought from native seed providers. Start them early spring by surface sowing in good light.

You might be wondering if it’s legal to grow wild lettuce considering the slight opium like effect.. the answer is yes. 😉


There are safety concerns for those pregnant, breastfeeding and also for small children.

Use in moderation. It’s possible to build up toxicity with prolonged use.

Don’t get the sap in your eyes – a general rule for sap!

And the Usual Cautions:

1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation. Tannins are toxic if consumed in excess.

2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk. For instance, saponins commonly cause stomach upset.

3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored.

4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.

5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.

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Edible and Medicinal Plants of Canada

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Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine: 550 Herbs and Remedies for Common Ailments

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