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 reta
ned 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juice, when withdrawn from the cut or incised stalks and stems of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 [308] 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 lactuca occultatum a

Venere Adonin--cecinit Callimachus--quod allegorice 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 [309] 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 (H.) 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 [310] 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 [311] 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 (H.) 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 [312] 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 Pretre, 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 (H.) from the fresh root.

[313] 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.