Commonly known as Wild Lettuce, Lactuca virosa, also sometimes identified as opium lettuce, is believed to have been used for its psychoactive properties by ancient Egyptians based on its depiction in hieroglyphics. It often appears in Egyptian art associated with the god Min, the god of the desert, of lightening and sandstorms, in addition to being known as the god of procreation and fertility. Min was symbolically represented by the lettuce and the phallus.
The Egyptians held a festival in Min’s honor as a harvest celebration during the first month of summer, when a statue of Min would be carried aloft on a bed of lettuce in a scared ritual procession. The Emperor Augustus, the first emperor of the Roman Empire, attributed his recovery from a dangerous illness to wild lettuce. He even built an altar to it and erected a statue in its honor.
Dioscorides, the famed physician, pharmacologist and botanist of ancient Greece who authored the pioneering five volume tome “De Materia Medica” - the precursor to all modern pharmacopeias - described wild lettuce as having effects similar to that of Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy. He sited this as the reason the lactucarium, or juice, of wild lettuce would be added to opium latex, for it was known to possess the properties of an effective pain reliever and sedative sleeping aid.
All species of lettuce contain some of this narcotic juice; Lactuca virosa has the most, while the others have amounts in the following order: Lactuca scariola, or Prickly Lettuce, Lactuca altissima, Lactuca Canadensis, or Wild Lettuce of America, and Lactuca sativa, or Garden Lettuce. Cultivation has lessened the narcotic properties of the latter, although it is still used for making a dermatological lotion useful in treating sunburn and alleviating roughness. The Ancients held wild lettuce in high esteem for its cooling and refreshing properties, and made from it a decoction taken to relieve the pain from scorpion stings and spider bites.
The ancient Egyptians purportedly possessed a book of love agents that contained recipes for aphrodisiacs, many of which were said to made with the lactucarium of wild lettuce. The book is long lost, and can only be found in references in ancient texts; therefore the Egyptian’s recipes for aphrodisiacs based upon lettuce are unknown today. Conversely, the ancient Greeks believed that wild lettuce promoted the menses cycle, as well as decreased the libido and inhibited coitus.
It has been hypothesized that wild lettuce was the “twelve gods’ herb” that Pliny the Elder, a well-known author, naturalist and philosopher of ancient Rome, praised as a panacea. The Arabic physician Avicenna, who was responsible for establishing the use of opium in Islamic medicine, noted that the juice pressed from wild lettuce seeds provided a sedative effect. Hildegard von Bingen - a highly respected, visionary author of the twelfth century who wrote pioneering texts on the curative powers of natural objects for healing and the medicinal uses of plants, animals, trees and stones - helped to establish the psychoactive reputation of wild lettuce in her writings.
Generally an annual, although an occasional biennial, wild lettuce grows to a maximum height of six feet and has a pale green central stalk that is sometimes spotted with purple. The erect stem, springing from a brown tap-root, is smooth and pale green, sometimes spotted with purple. There are a few prickles on the lower part and short horizontal branches above. The numerous, large, radical leaves are from 6 to 18 inches long, entire, and obovate-oblong. The stem leaves are scanty, alternate, and small, clasping the stem with two small lobes. The heads are numerous and shortly-stalked, the pale-yellow corolla being strap-shaped. The rough, black fruit is oval, with a broad wing along the edge, and prolonged above into a long, white beak carrying silvery tufts of hair. The whole plant is rich in a milky juice that flows freely from any wound. This has a bitter taste and a narcotic odour. When dry, it hardens, turns brown, and is known as lactucarium.
The Wild Lettuce grows on banks and waste places, flowering in July and August. It is cultivated in Austria, France, Germany and Scotland. Collectors cut the heads of the plants and scrape the juice into china vessels several times daily until it is exhausted. By slightly warming and tapping, it is turned out of its cup mould, is cut into quarters and dried.
The plant’s numerous leaves are spinose and edged with jagged teeth, and their midveins have spines on their undersides. The stem leaves are scant, alternate and small, each attached to the stem by two small lobes. The inflorescence are numerous and short-stemmed, with strap-shaped, pale yellow corollas. The black fruit is rough skinned and oval-shaped, with a broad wing along the outer edge, tipped by tapered beaks that sprout silvery tufts of silken hair.
Wild lettuce grows best in loosely packed, well drained soil and blooms during July and August. It is cultivated in Austria, France, Germany and Scotland, and grows wild in many parts of southern and central Europe. It can also be found all across the southern states of North America. It is propagated by simply scattering the seeds over the ground in spring.
The sap of wild lettuce is extracted by cutting the tops of the plant and then squeezing and scraping the milk repeatedly into ceramic vessels until it the plant’s supply is exhausted. The resulting resin can be released from its cup mould by slightly warming and tapping the vessel. It is then usually cut into quarters and dried. The dried latex can then be dissolved in alcohol and drunk, or smoked as pure resin or in a smoking blend, mixed together with other herbs such as hemp or thorn apple.
In the United States, after importation from Germany via England, wild lettuce is reportedly used as an adulterant for opium, much like what Dioscorides wrote about thousands of years ago. This adulterated form of opium is usually distributed in an irregular, reddish-brown mass the size of a large pea, which is frequently moldy on the outside. In the United States, the German and French wild lettuce lactucarium is considered inferior to the British product. The pure wild lettuce extract is also used by many as a substitute for opium.
Lactucarium is not easily powdered, and is only slightly soluble in boiling water, though it does soften and becomes flexible. Lactuca virosa has been found to contain lactucic acid, lactucopicrin, 50 to 60 per cent lactucerin (lactucone) and lactucin. Lactucarium prepared with boiling water and then filtered is clear, but upon cooling, the filtrate becomes turbid.
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: The Hopi smoked the dried resin, or sap, obtained from the plant. The flower would be cut off and the sap that ran from the stem would be collected. Each day, for a few weeks, another tiny bit was cut from the stem and more sap collected. This sap was then air-dried and later smoked in ritual. (Similar effects are achieved with the dried leafs.) The Hopi believe that induced dream states contain more information about reality than the conscious waking state. Wild lettuce is said to enhance the vividness of dreams when smoked prior to sleep.
A modern method used to take wild lettuce is to dry the leaves and roots and then smoke them. Yet another technique is to heat, although careful not to boil, the leaves in water for at least eight hours and then remove the liquid. The lactucarine (active chemical) leaches into the water solution. Once the water has evaporated, the result will be a black gum that is often smoked. This resin should be sealed in plastic to prevent it from drying out. An effective dose is generally about one ounce of dried wild lettuce leaves or approximately one-half gram of the extract per person.
Read more in the Wild Lettuce (Lactuca virosa) article found at Shaman's Garden.
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