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Fields, Forests & Wetlands Foods of Eastern North America

A Complete Wild Food Guide

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Canada or Wild Lettuce flower. (By: Frank Mayfield (gmayfield10) Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

Season: Spring

Urban, Rural or Both: Both

Wild Lettuce (Lactuca canadensis). Also called the Canada lettuce. This is, as the name would indicate, a member of the Lactuca family, of which the Garden Lettuce (Lactuca sativa) comes from. Like Dandelions, they exude a milky sap where broken or cut.

It is a spring green with a mildly bitter taste. It can be eaten raw as a (small) component of salads, or cooked lightly and used in the same way you would use Dandelion or Chicory greens - again, in small amounts. The milky sap from this plant contains Lactucarium in small amounts, which is reputed to be calming and help digestion, but in large amounts has a slight narcotic effect. However the amount of Lactucarium in this plant is much lower than in its close relative, the Prickly Lettuce (Lactuca serriola), which also is used as a cooked green - you wouldn't want to eat it raw with all the spines on the back of the leaf's main vein. They are very similar looking plants in many ways - especially the flowers. The way to tell them apart is: With the Wild Lettuce (Lactuca canadensis), the color of the leaf is a green to almost yellowish green, and does not have big prickles. The Prickly Lettuce (Lactuca serriola) is much more blue-green in color, and has the nasty looking prickles on the plant - most obvious on the back of the almost white, main vein on the leaf. The prickles are in a row on the back of the vein, making it look like a comb. The prickles are not as bad as they look - they are relatively soft - much softer than the thorns on a milk thistle. Speaking of the leaf veins, on the Prickly Lettuce the all veins are almost white, and look like a spider's web pattern on the leaf, while on the Wild Lettuce, the veins are not nearly as noticeable.

Because of the prickles, and the higher Lactucarium content, I don't bother with the Prickly Lettuce.

The leaves of both are highly variable in shape (much like a Dandelion) and take the range of shapes of a Dandelion leaf. Even the flowers look a bit like small dandelions. Unlike the Dandelion, they form a central stalk on which the flowers form, and on which there are leaves - Dandelions never form a central stalk - leaves and flowers come from the base only.

Since I keep referring to Dandelions, I have to say I don't eat much of this plant. I prefer the taste and texture of Dandelions, and never have trouble finding any. I tend to think of this plant more as a medicinal than as a food, even though it can be used as food. A nice condition, fresh, raw, young leaf eaten at night does seem to help me sleep. More than a couple, and I get strange dreams.

When it comes to lettuce, I have to be honest and say I grow my own, and specifically a breed called "Grand Rapids". It is the perfect lettuce, except it doesn't keep well (that's why you don't find it in stores). Funny thing is, when it bolts in very hot weather, it looks and tastes exactly like Wild Lettuce.

By the way, there is a blue flowered (actually, it is more like mauve in color) Wild Lettuce called the Tall Blue Lettuce (Lactuca biennis), but the taste is so bitter, I can't see why anyone would eat it. I guess if you had a lot around, and not many other greens, you could cook it in a lot of water, pour out the water and use it in a meal. My guess is it would make the whole meal bitter, but it's just a guess - I've never tried.

Growing this plant in your home garden:

This one comes up in my yard without fail every year. I would assume just gathering mature seeds and raking into the top of the soil would do the trick.


Lactuca canadensis range

Wild Lettuce (Lactuca canadensis) range. Distribution map courtesy of U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA Natural Resources Service) and used in accordance with their policies.


Wild Lettuce (Lactuca canadensis) (Steve Hurst, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database)


Drawing. (USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. Vol. 3: 320)

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Important Notes when Identifying
Rules & Cautions
Dangerous Plants to Avoid Touching

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