Common names: Prickly Lettuce, Milk Thistle, Compass Plant
Taxonomic name: Lactuca serriola
Uses: induces sleep, painkiller
Area of origin: Eurasia, Africa
Warnings: Very prickly
Prickly Lettuce (Lactuca serriola) is the first herb that comes to my mind when I think of pain. It is such a good painkiller that it has a reputation for containing opiates.
As with a few of the herbs we have in Australia, ours isn’t the herb of the same name in the Northern hemisphere, that one, in this case is Lactuca virosa. There isn’t a lot of difference for our uses. The real difference comes when it’s time to harvest. L. virosa has more of its white sap in the stems, so it’s easier to harvest mechanically. L. serriola has the sap distributed throughout its leaves and veins, making it too sticky to harvest by machine.
Prickly Lettuce is easy to identify, even amongst the other thistles that often grow around it. The flat leaves are held upright and along their central spine is a row of prickles that give it it’s other common name ‘Prickly Lettuce’. Like many other plants of this type, it has a bright yellow flower.
Like most other thistles, its leaves and stems contain a bitter, white sap. This is where all the goodness is. Bitters stimulate a lot of processes throughout the body, not the least being the secretion of gastric fluids to help digestion, giving energy and fire to sluggish conditions.
The most interesting components of the sap are two chemicals that provide strong painkilling effects. There is some division about the effectiveness of it in this species, but personal experimentation has found that a tincture of it is quite effective for minor aches and pain. A tea brewed from the dried leaves works as soporific and minor pain killer.
American herbalist, Matthew Wood, recommends using Wild Lettuce as a remedy for negative thinking, for the type of person who sits and thinks the worst before it happens, who are robbed of motivation by this kind of thinking.
I can see this in its physical form, its ‘signature’. The leaves are upright and the plant leads the eye to its bright yellow flower, but to get there, you need to get past lots of prickles and a very vertical form. just the kind of prickles in life and hard climb that the Wild Lettuce type of person needs motivation to overcome. The taste is bitter, something that many folks shy away from – another test to overcome before realising that life isn’t all struggle, but that many struggles do need overcoming in order to experience joy.