Author: William Thomas Fernie (UK) - Year 1897
Our garden Lettuce is a cultivated variety of the wild, or
strong-scented Lettuce (Lactuca virosa), which grows, with prickly
leaves, on banks and waysides in chalky districts throughout
England and Wales. It belongs to the Composite order of plants, and
contains the medicinal properties of the plant more actively than
does the Lettuce produced for the kitchen. An older form of the
name is Lettouce, which is still retained in Scotland.
Chemically the wild Lettuce contains lactucin, lactucopricin,
asparagin, mannite, albumen, gum, and resin, together with oxalic,
malic, and citric acids; thus possessing virtues for easing pain, and
inducing sleep. The cultivated Lettuce which comes to our tables
retains these same properties, but in a very modified degree, since
the formidable principles have become as completely toned down
and guileless in the garden product as were the child-like manners
and the pensive smile of Bret Harte's Heathen Chinee.
Each plant derives its name, lactuca, from its milky juice; in Latin
lactis; and in Greek, galaktos (taking the genitive case). This
juice, when withdrawn from the cut or incised stalks and stems of
the wild Lettuce, is milky at first, and afterwards becomes brown,
like opium, being then known (when dried into a kind of gum) as
lactucarium. From three to eight grains of this gum, if taken at
bedtime, will allay the wakefulness which follows over-excitement
of brain. A similar lactucarium, got from the dried milk of the
cultivated garden Lettuce, is so mild a sedative as to be suitable for
restless infants; and two grains thereof may be safely given to a
young child for soothing it to sleep.
The wild Lettuce is rather laxative; with which view a decoction of
the leaves is sometimes taken as a drink to remedy
constipation, and intestinal difficulties, as also to allay feverish
pains. The plant was mentioned as acting thus in an epigram by
Martial (Libr. VI., Sq.).
"Prima tibi dabitur ventro lactuca movendo
Utilis, et porris fila resecta suis."
Gerard said: "Being in some degree laxative and aperient, the
cultivated Lettuce is very proper for hot bilious dispositions;" and
Parkinson adds (1640): "Lettuce eaten raw or boyled, helpeth to
loosen the belly, and the boyled more than the raw." It was known
as the "Milk Plant" to Dioscorides and Theophrastus, and was much
esteemed by the Romans to be eaten after a debauch of wine, or as a
sedative for inducing sleep. But a prejudice against it was
entertained for a time as venerem enervans, and therefore
mortuorum cibi, "food for the dead."
Apuleius says, that when the eagle desires to fly to a great height,
and to get a clear view of the extensive prospect below him, he first
plucks a leaf of the wild Lettuce and touches his eyes with the juice
thereof, by which means he obtains the widest perspicuity of vision.
"Dicunt aquilam quum in altum volare voluerit ut prospiciat rerum
naturas lactucoe sylvaticoe folium evellere et succo ejus sibi oculos
tangere, et maximam inde claritudinem accipere."
After the death of Adonis, Venus is related to have thrown herself
on a bed of lettuces to assuage her grief. "In lactucâ occultatum a
Venere Adonin--cecinit Callimachus--quod allegoricé interpretatus
Athenoeus illuc referendum putat quod in venerem hebetiores fiunt
lactucas vescentes assidue."
The Pythagoreans called this plant "the Eunuch"; and there is a
saying in Surrey, "O'er much Lettuce in the garden will stop a
young wife's bearing." During the middle ages it was thought an evil
spirit lurked among the Lettuces adverse to mothers, and causing
grievous ills to new-born infants.
The Romans, in the reign of Domitian, had the lettuce prepared with
eggs, and served with the last course at their tables, so as to
stimulate their appetites afresh. Martial wonders that it had since
then become customary to take it rather at the beginning of the
"Claudere quae caenas lactuca solebat avorum
Dic mihi cur nostras inchoat illa dapes."
Antoninus Musa cured Caesar Augustus of hypochondriasis by
means of this plant.
The most common variety of the wild Lettuce, improved by
frequent cultivation, is the Cabbage Lettuce, or Roman, "which is
the best to boil, stew, or put into hodge-podge." Different sorts of
the Cos Lettuce follow next onwards. The Lactuca sylvatica is a
variety of the wild Lettuce producing similar effects. From this a
medicinal tincture is prepared, and an extract from the
flowering herb is given in doses of from five to fifteen grains. No
attempt was made to cultivate the Lettuce in this country until the
fourth year of Elizabeth's reign.
When bleached by gardeners the lettuce becomes tender, sweet, and
succulent, being easily digested, even by dyspeptic persons, as to its
crisp, leafy parts, but not its hard stalk. It now contains but little
nutriment of any sort, but supplies some mineral salts, especially
nitre. In the stem there still lingers a small quantity of the
sleep-inducing principle, "lactucarin," particularly when the plant is
flowering. Galen, when sleepless from advanced age and
infirmities, with hard study, took decoction of the Lettuce at night;
and Pope says, with reference to our garden sort:--
"If you want rest,
Lettuce, and cowslip wine:--'probatum est.'"
But if Lettuces are taken at supper with this view of promoting
sleep, they should be had without any vinegar, which neutralises
their soporific qualities. "Sleep," said Sir Thomas Brown, "is so like
death that I dare not trust it without my prayers."
Some persons suppose that when artificially blanched the plant is
less wholesome than if left to grow naturally in the garden,
especially if its ready digestibility by those of sensitive stomachs be
correctly attributed to the slightly narcotic principle. It was taken
uncooked by the Hebrews with the Paschal lamb.
John Evelyn writes enthusiastically about it in his Book of
Sallets: "So harmless is it that it may safely be eaten raw in fevers;
it allays heat, bridles choler, extinguishes thirst, excites appetite,
kindly nourishes, and, above all, represses vapours, conciliates
sleep, and mitigates pain, besides the effect it has upon the morals--
temperance and chastity."
"Galen (whose beloved sallet it was) says it breeds the most
laudable blood. No marvel, then, that Lettuces were by the ancients
called sanoe by way of eminency, and were so highly valued by
the great Augustus that, attributing to them his recovery from a
dangerous sickness, it is reported he erected a statue and built an
altar to this noble plant." Likewise, "Tacitus, spending almost
nothing at his frugal table in other dainties, was yet so great a
friend to the Lettuce that he used to say of his prodigality in its
purchase, Summi se mercari illas sumitus effusione."
Probably the Lettuce of Greece was more active than our indigenous,
or cultivated plant.
By way of admonition as to care in preparing the Lettuce for table,
Dr. King Chambers has said (Diet in Health and Disease), "The
consumption of Lettuce by the working man with his tea is an
increasing habit worthy of all encouragement. But the said working
man must be warned of the importance of washing the material of
his meal. This hint is given in view of the frequent occurrence of the
large round worm in the labouring population of some agricultural
counties, Oxfordshire for instance, where unwashed Lettuce is
largely eaten." Young Lettuces may be raised in forty-eight-hours
by first steeping the seed in brandy and then sowing it in a
The seeds of the garden Lettuce are emollient, and when rubbed up
with water make a pleasant emulsion, which contains nothing of the
milky, laxative bitterness furnished by the leaves and stalk. This
emulsion resembles that of almonds, but is even more cooling, and
therefore a better medicine in disorders arising from acrimony and
From the Lactuca virosa, or strong-scented wild Lettuce, a
medicinal tincture is prepared, using the whole plant. On the
principle of treating with this tincture, when diluted, such toxic
effects as too large doses of the juice would bring about, a slow
pulse, with a disposition to stupor, and sleepy weakness, are
successfully met by its use. Also a medicinal extract is made by
druggists from the wild Lettuce, and given in doses of from three to
ten grains for the medicinal purposes which have been particularised,
and to remove a dull, heavy headache.
"The garden Lettuce is good," as Pliny said, "for burnings and
scaldings if the leaves be laid thereon, with salt (sic), before the
blisters do appear." "By reason," concludes Evelyn, "too, of its
soporiferous quality, the Lettuce ever was, and still continues, the
principal foundation of the universal tribe of Sallets, which cools
and refreshes, besides its other properties, and therefore was held in
such high esteem by the ancients, that divers of the Valerian family
dignified and ennobled their name with that of Lactucinii." It is
botanically distinguished as the Lactuca sativa, "from the plenty
of milk," says "Adam in Eden" (W. Coles), "that it hath, and
Lambs' Lettuce, or Corn Salad, is a distinct plant, one of the
Valerian tribe, which was formerly classed as a Lettuce, by name,
Lactuca agnina, either because it appears about the time when
lambs (agni) are dropped, or because it is a favourite food of
The French call this salade de Prètre, "monks' salad," and in
reference thereto an old writer has said: "It certainly deserves a
place among the penitential herbs, for the stomach that admits it
is apt to cry peccavi."
The same plant is also known by the title of the White Pot Herb, in
contrast to the Olus atrum, or Black Pot Herb. It grows wild in the
banks of hedges and waste cornfields, and is cultivated in our
kitchen gardens as a salad herb, the Milk Grass, being called
botanically the Valerianella olitoria, and having been in request as
a spring medicine among country folk in former days. By genus it is
a Fedia, and bears diminutive white flowers resembling glass.
Gerard says: "We know the Lambs' Lettuce as Loblollie; and it
serves in winter as a salad herb, among others none of the worst." In
France it goes by the names manche and broussette. A
medicinal tincture is made from the fresh root.
The black pot-herb--so called from the dark colour of its
fruit--is an umbelliferous plant, (Smyrnium olusatrum) or Alexanders,
often found in the vicinity of abbeys, and probably therefore held in
former repute by the Monks. Its names are derived from Smyrna,
myrrh, in allusion to the odour of the plant; and from Macedonicum,
or the parsley of Macedon, Alexander's country. The herb
was also known as Stanmarch. It grows on waste places by
rivers near the sea, having been formerly cultivated like celery,
which has now supplanted it. When boiled it is eaten with avidity by
sailors returning from long voyages, who happen to land at the
South Western corner of Anglesea.