If you lived in Egypt circa 2500 BC and were incredibly rich, you may have spent many a Day of the Moon’s night sipping on cold pressed Prickly Lettuce (Lactuca serriola) juice. But unlike today’s health conscious kombucha-kale imbibers, the ancient Egyptians didn’t drink these greens for their antioxidants.
Instead, it just so happens that Lactuca serriola contains a high level of lactucarium, a milky liquid stored near the roots and in the stem that shares the sedative and psychotropic characteristics of opium. Indeed, Prickly Lettuce by another name is Opium Lettuce.
If a nip just wasn’t enough, one of your many servants could harvest the lactucarium from the plant, dry it, chop it, then pack your pipe with the stuff. Don’t try this at home kids.
But, the import of Opium Lettuce went beyond the purely recreational for the Egyptians. So much so that Min, the god of fertility, sandstorms, and lightening, was symbolized by its leafy stalk and the phallus. Thus the first realm of his reign and the reason why the plant was also seen to be an aphrodisiac.
The Greeks had an entirely different opinion of Lactuca serriola that originated the moment Adonis, Aphrodite’s beloved, was slain by a wild boar on the bed of the stuff like some grotesque salad. From then on, Lactuca serriola was associated with male impotency and Pythagoras went so far as to call the plant “eunuch” for its perceived buzz-killing qualities. Not leave out the ladies, the Greeks also believed that the plant encouraged menses.
Fear not though. The fortunes of Lactuca serriola soon rose again with the miraculous recovery of Rome’s Emperor Augustus who credited his escape from Pluto’s underworld to a steady diet of its greens, and likely also juice from its opioid-like lactucarium. Augustus was so thankful for this remedy that he built a statue to Musa, the physician who prescribed his wild cure.
While all this seems early on, the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans were actually latecomers to Lactuca serriola’s fan club. As early as 3500 BC the ancient peoples of Mesopotamia Babylon to the Akkad credited the plant with helping Tammuz, the god of fertility and vegetation, to descend to the netherworld where he joined his one true love, Inanna. But, as it turned out, Tammuz wasn’t such a big fan of “the land of no return” and convinced his sister to split the year with him. According to myth, this also accounts for the warmer months’ fecundity, when Tammuz emerged, and the barrenness of winter, when he descended once more.
Little is said of Lactuca serriola during the European Middle Ages. Chaucer did mention lettuce in the Canterbury Tales, though which type he did not say. An archaeological dig in the medieval city of Ferrara, Italy found it inconclusive as to whether or not Prickly Lettuce was used in salads or for a sedative, but did find that the plant grew in the urban landscape and has therefore been a City Plant since there were cities, which to me is incredibly exciting.
Reports vary as to when Prickly Lettuce was introduced to North America. What is sure however is that many were none too pleased with it, especially farmers. According to The Manual of Weeds, published 1916, Prickly Lettuce is “a noxious weed that owes its wide range almost entirely to the agency of impure seed.” The author continues, “in addition to its robbery of the crop in grain fields, the hard stems dull the reaping knives, and the copious, milky juice makes the weed very troublesome in threshing machines.”
Conversely, numerous first nations people incorporated it into their already encyclopedic knowledge of North American flora. The Hopi peoples made like the Egyptians and smoked the sap to induce a euphoric dream state. The Menominees used ut as a balm for poison ivy while the Potawatomis kept their use secret.
Modern medicine also found its uses for Lactuca serriola when in 1799 one Dr. Coxe of Philadelphia, PA found a use for it as an over the counter sedative, painkiller, sleep aid, and cough suppressant.
It probably goes without saying that the hippies of the 1970s jumped on the Opium Lettuce bandwagon seeing as though it was a free and wild psychotropic – much the same way I would imagine that many of them liked to envision themselves. Unfortunately, harvesting the milk is a long and arduous task that few had the patience for.
These days you can find Lactuca serriola growing in the rare empty lots of Bed-Stuy, tucked between two buildings, or in the garbage areas of Astoria.