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
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.
- Plant Size: Up to 3 meters (10 feet) tall, usually around 1-2 meters (3 to 6 feet)
- Duration: Winter Annual or Biennial
- Leaf Shape: Highly variable, looks Dandelion like overall, often Pinnatisect (sets of opposite lobes), but sometimes the lobes are not opposite each other and seem random. Sometimes, it looks like a long, thin spear or lance shape with two or three sets of what look like wings. Smaller leaves often have no lobes or very small lobes.
- Leaf Phyllotaxis (Leaf Arrangement) on branch: Alternate on stalk
- Leaf Size: Up to 25 cm (10 inches) long and 7.5 cm(3 inches) wide
- Leaf Margin: Highly variable, usually with widely spaced small sawtooth, sometimes these look like tiny thorns on the edges.
- Leaf Notes: Leaves are hairless except on the back of stem and main vein. Where broken or cut it exudes a white milky latex liquid. Leaf surface can have a shine or be dull. Sometimes there is a slight purplish to the leaf edges. Sometimes the leaves have a yellowish hue.
- Flowers: Look like small Dandelion flowers at the top of the big central stalk on very spaced out (open) clusters. Almost always yellow, but sometimes yellow in center with white outer petals. If all yellow, the yellow can range from very light, to a school bus yellow. Sometimes there can be a reddish tint to the tips of the outer petals. Usually 6-20 flowers per cluster. Flowers in late summer to early fall.
- Fruit: Looks just like small Dandelion's in seed when still on flower - small, longer than wide, attached to a whitish pappus that acts like a parachute to let the fruit be carried by the wind.
- Stem Notes: The central stalk can have a purplish blotching on the green background
- Habitat: Areas of full or part sun. Its size is variable with growing conditions - Good, open loamy damp, well drained soil and it can be huge. Dry, hard, infertile soil, it will be small. Can be almost anywhere but in shaded woods and very wet soil. Fields, edges of woods, waste areas, gardens, ditches, etc.
- Pictures on the web here (Google images) and here (Bing images). A lot of the pictures listed are not the Lactuca canadensis, but the Prickly Lettuce (Lactuca serriola)
- USDA distribution map and plant profile here.
- The Biota of North America Program (BONAP) distribution map here. BONAP map color key here.
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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