Wild lettuce is everywhere. I see it all over the downtown area of our city, growing in cracks in pavement and against buildings. Wherever you are right now, there is probably a plant of it growing nearby. Its endurance is extraordinary and there is no getting rid of it, which suits me fine. A green that will grow in unwatered parts of my desert yard is an unusual thing, and I’m not likely to turn down a gift like that.
It’s quite variable in leaf shape and a few species are common in the U.S. In my area I mostly see Lactuca serriola, which is covered with small spines. I borrowed the photo above because the spines show more clearly than in my own photo. Accounts online and in foraging books differ, some reporting that the young leaves are delicious, others considering them a very poor food, and all commenting on the bitterness of the adult plant. In my area they don’t seem to get very bitter, not half as bitter as dandelions or chicory, and I love to eat the growing tips regardless of the age of the plant. This may relate to soil or temperature factors. I have noticed the same thing with sow thistle that grows in my yard, which lacks its characteristic bitterness, while dandelions in the same area seem even more bitter than those found elsewhere. Nature always has the last word and does not have to provide us with explanations. You have to get to know your home area.
I pick the tips as shown on the right, but if I find a plant growing in shade I will pick larger leaves because they remain more tender than when grown in sun. They exude sticky white sap, which washes away easily. I toss the tips in boiling water for about 90 seconds and drain and squeeze, which renders the spines soft and harmless. Proceed as desired. With greens that have any tinge of bitterness, I like to sauté with garlic, olive oil, and pepper flakes, preferably the deep earthy Turkish Urfa pepper flakes or smoky chipotle flakes. A ten minute sauté creates a lovely vegetable.
The rest of the plant is a favorite treat for my goat, who is totally unbothered by the spines. It’s one of the few plants that she never seems to get finicky about.
There are some very weird things to be found online. Wild lettuce has acquired a strange internet reputation as “lettuce opium” and there are places that sell the seeds and tincture and swear it will cure insomnia and/or get you high. I have no idea where this idea came from. I was startled to learn about it when I searched for a good photo, and overall I would disregard the whole idea. So do the people who have actually tried it; customer feedback includes comments like “very mild,” “placebo buzz only,” “nothing going on here,” and “useless.” One commenter who thought it was great admitted to being “crazy drunk” when he tried it, which no doubt makes a difference. Some think it is a useful mild sleep aid if smoked or brewed as a very strong tea. I don’t advise smoking anything at all so I wouldn’t know. For those interested in soporifics I can only say that when I eat it at dinner I feel sleepy at bedtime, and when I eat anything else for dinner I feel sleepy at bedtime.