Forage Friday #83 Wild Lettuce.

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Before we begin I should probably disclose the fact that wild lettuce is one of the plants that I’ve been reluctant to try. One reason why is that I’ve heard conflicting reports about the flavor. Some sing it’s praises while others say it’s horribly bitter. And, because there’s so many other options in the Appalachian Mountains I’ve tucked it away under the “Emergency Use Only” file in my mind. But, I do have a theory that those who say it’s disgusting have harvested it in the wrong stage of life.

It’s stated that domestic lettuce has pretty much been bred to the point where in order to get a more palatable flavor the nutritional value is lost. Wild Lettuce by contrast tends to produce copious amounts of white latex sap and that’s where the awful taste comes from. The sap is more prevalent as the plant matures and thus older plants are more bitter. So to begin with we should only consider the young rosette with new leaves in spring. These should have the least amount of latex and therefore more likely to be acceptable as an edible. Green Dean is one of my go tos on plants that I’m not intimately familiar with. His suggestion is to use wild lettuce as a cooked herb instead of a salad plant as we would domestic lettuce. The recommended method is to boil the tender new leaves for 10 minutes and serve with a vinegar based dressing. I suspect there’s some chemistry at play here. The bitter latex sap would be alkaloid so adding vinegar to bring down the Ph levels should improve the flavor. Again, I’m going on someone else’s word here.

We should also consider that there’s different kinds of wild lettuce just like there’s different kinds of domestic lettuce. This could also affect it’s quality as a wild edible.

The toothy margin and deep cuts into the leaf are identifying characteristics of wild lettuce.

The plants whose leaves are the subject of tonight’s photos were mature plants about to bloom. One of which I estimated was close to 10 feet tall. I was actually concerned that it might get into the power lines and cut it just in case it might be capable of shorting out the line and starting a fire. When I did it didn’t take long for the stem to produce that sticky latex sap.

When I was taking my early botany classes in the 90s the topic of herbalism came up any time we discussed something that was found locally. While discussing wild lettuce one of my classmates brought up the topic of “lettuce opium”. The gist is that during the Great Depression and prohibition the ingredients for homemade liquor were far too valuable as actual food than as a cocktail. For those who wanted to be intoxicated lettuce opium was a popular choice. The technique involved collecting the sap and reducing it down to a small marble sized ball and smoking it. The deleterious effects may have been nothing more than placebo according to James A Duke of Petersen’s Field Guide and The Green Pharmacy. He stated that “It was a better substitute for latex rubber than opium.” However, there is a tradition of using the substance as a sedative. Like most herbal remedies lettuce opium is credited with helping a broad range of issues. It’s isolates have been used as antimicrobial agents, cough syrup ( probably due to the precieved sedative quality ), various aches and pains and even malaria.

I always try to bring you wild plants that have at least some backing in modern science but to date I’ve not been able to locate a solid conformation of any of these claims. Which is kinda disappointing because it is a plentiful plant. Fortunately for me there are other confirmed plants that provide similar benefits on my mountain and so I’ll be keeping my opinion on wild lettuce as a option only if there’s nothing else available.

Good night friends and be blessed throughout your days.

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