If your experience with lettuce opium is that it’s all a hype then … first, I used to agree completely, and second, if you’ll read on you may agree that we probably don’t know the whole story and that there may be a lot more to be re-discovered. Also, if you already know and use garden lettuce, Lactuca Sativa and its wild cousin, Lactuca Virosa as herbal medicines, then I hope that this post contributes to your existing store of useful knowledge.
As for the delightful idea of brain-moistening as a property of Lettuce Opium, you’ll find that ancient Iranian medical concept discussed in the research papers at the end of this article.
Dr. John Duncan, an Edinburgh physician who you’ll meet shortly, clearly knew something important in 1810 that has since been lost.
Not that many of us in the Cannabis culture aren’t already familiar with “Lettuce Opium” but if you, like me, have tried it several times with a big “so what” result, it’s hard to understand how Lettuce Opium was for many years, across continents, considered by physicians and patients alike to be an excellent substitute for Opium itself, without the addiction and side-effects but with many of the virtues – pain relief, a restful night’s sleep, and – in today’s terms – what sounds like a nice high.
Doesn’t sound like the “Lettuce Opium” of today, dThese early physicians were objective observers, and when Dr. Duncan says that his Lettuce Opium extracts fall somewhere between Bengali and Turkish Opium in their effect, I believe him.
So why was Lettuce Opium so effective in the 1800s in Europe, where they had their choice of opium opium, and why has it been a respected medicine for thousands of years in Iran, where they have had their choice of opium opium since forever, but today when you buy lettuce opium on eBay or Amazon or at a local head shop it is almost always – in my opinion – a big disappointment?
This question has been circulating in the back of my mind for years and finally, one day quite recently, the answer appeared with discovering this gentle little essay from 1810. It looks like the active principles in Opium Lettuce are far more unstable than those in Papaver Somniferum, and it has to be used somehow immediately after harvest for best results.
And that fits perfectly with how doctors provided patients with medicines in those long-gone centuries. They didn’t write a script and send the patient off to a pharmacy to buy pills from Pig Pharma. Most doctors in 1810 made many of their medicines themselves or, at a minimum, bought their natural medicines from someone in the community who made them to order. In other words – fresh. I thought – maybe that’s why Lettuce Opium worked so well for these doctors and their patients, and why the Lettuce Opium sold today for a recreational high is by and large a bust.
A little research on the internet confirmed that my hunch seemed correct about the instability of the active principles in Lettuce Opium – they degrade very quickly in a matter of a few days or at most weeks, depending on storage, environmental conditions, the care and media used for extraction, the lettuce species used, etc. That tells me that there are probably great opportunities for home medicinal herb gardens and in local markets and little chance of seeing “Corporate Opium Lettuce” like we’re seeing “Corporate Cannabis”.
So, let’s ask again, what did Dr. Duncan know in 1810 that we don’t get today? Or are we so over-medicated in today’s world that simple lettuce opium is just too mild and doesn’t do it for us?
I seriously doubt that, because when you look at the 1800s there was a shitload of pure heavy duty opium everywhere so when this doctor compares his fresh lettuce extract as the equal of Bengali but not quite as strong as Turkish Opium you know he’s speaking from experience.
I smoked a lot of both Turkish and SE Asian opium in Amsterdam in the 90s and I agree with the good doctor from 1810 – there is a definite difference. If lettuce opium was hitting his patients, and the good doctor himself, in 1810 with an impact somewhere between Turkish and Bengali Opium I would have to say that’s not what I’ve experienced today. There’s a mystery to be solved here, which is why I’m sharing this.
With 50-70 million people in the US alone suffering from moderate to severe insomnia and with few if any effective sleep-aids available, I wonder if having this fresh, organic, locally-grown Opium Lettuce solution available, even at local markets, could be an answer to a lot of people’s dreams – quite literally – while reducing their dependence on Pig Pharma. I also have to wonder what role Lettuce Opium might be able to play in helping people work their way free from industrial poisons masquerading as street drugs. Then there’s a possible role in withdrawal from tobacco product addiction, treating eating disorders, and maybe more. I’ll share some of those references later.
So with that in mind I am offering this short paper by an 18th Century doctor whose experiments with Lettuce Opium clearly point the way, in detail, for anyone today who wants to make potent, fresh, safe and effective Lettuce Opium. The doctor’s directions are clear and simple and I hope that they are inspirational.
Keeping in mind that the good doctor’s outdoor lettuce production was in a garden in cloudy, cool Edinburgh, Scotland it seems clear that Lettuce Opium could be a very effective natural medicine that anyone can grow anywhere and prepare even in a small growing container, or intercropped with other medicinal herbs in a garden.
“Observations on the preparation of Soporific Medicines from common Garden Lettuce”, by Dr. J. L. Duncan, Senior,
Read in the Caledonian Horticultural Society, 6th March, 1810, and printed in the 1st volume of their Memoirs, p. 160. et seq.
“Opium, or the inspissated white juice which exudes from the capsule of the Papaver somniferum, or Opium Poppy, when wounded, has long been allowed to be one of the most useful articles employed in the alleviation or cure of diseases. The high encomium bestowed upon it by the illustrious Sydenham, has been fully confirmed by the testimony of succeeding practitioners in every nation.
“It is, however, much to be regretted, that there are individuals of the human species, with whom, from peculiarity of habit, opium seldom fails to produce distressing consequences.
“There are also conditions of disease, in which it may be very necessary to induce sleep, or allay pain, though circumstances occur by which the use of opium at that time is contra-indicated.
“Hence it has long been a desideratum in the healing art, to discover other powerful quieting medicines. For, although it is hardly to be expected that an article will ever be discovered, so extensively useful as Opium, yet a good soporific may be found, which, with some, will have less influence, either as exciting sickness at stomach, as occasioning confusion of head, or as inducing a state of constipation.
“It has been the opinion of many that all the milky juices spontaneously exuding from wounded vegetables possess somewhat of the same sedative power with the milky juice of the poppy. Few plants in Britain afford such milky juice more copiously than the common garden lettuce, the Lactuca sativa of Linnaeus.
“As everyone must have observed, that this juice when spontaneously inspissated by the heat of the sun on the wounded plant, soon assumes the dark colour of Opium; while, at the same time, it possesses in a high degree the peculiar, and, I may say, specific taste, which distinguishes that substance. Besides this, it is a well-known fact, that lettuce was much used by the ancients as a soporific.
“These circumstances led me to turn my thoughts on some method of collecting and preparing this exudation, that I might try its effects in the practice of medicine. And, after several trials of different modes of preparation, those which I shall now briefly describe are the best methods I have yet been able to discover.
“I dedicated to this experiment, in my garden at St. Leonard’s Hill, near Edinburgh, a small bed of that variety of lettuce, which is commonly known among gardeners by the name of ice lettuce. I allowed the plants, about a hundred in number, to shoot up, till the top of the stem was about a foot above the surface of the ground. I then cut off about an inch from the top of each. The milky juice immediately began to rise above the wounded surface.
“Though then of a white appearance, it had next day formed a black, or dark-coloured incrustation, over the surface where the stem was cut off. I found it impossible to separate this by scraping, as is done with the milky juice exuding from the head of the poppy, when it has assumed the form of Opium.
“I therefore cut off with a sharp knife a thin cross slice of the stem, to which the whole of the dark coloured opium-like matter adhered. This was thrown into a wide-mouthed phial, about half filled with weakened spirit of wine, the alcohol dilutum of the Edinburgh Pharmacopoeia, formed of equal parts of rectified spirit (grain alcohol 190 proof) and water. By this menstruum, the whole black incrustation on the thin slice of the stalk was dissolved; and the spirit, as may be readily concluded, obtained both the colour and taste of the black incrustation.
“Each of my plants, in consequence of the fresh wound inflicted by the removal of the thin cross slice, afforded a fresh incrustation every day. And by throwing these into the phial, I soon obtained what I concluded to be a saturated solution of the exudation from the lettuce, or rather of the milky juice in its inspissated state. It was then strained off, to separate the pure solution completely from the thin slices of the stalk. To this strained spirit, which had nearly both the appearance and taste of the ordinary laudanum of the shops, I have given the name of solutio spirituosa succi spissati lactucot.
“From trials made with this solution, both on myself and others, I have no doubt that it is a powerful soporific. But to obtain a form in which it might be exhibited, with greater certainty as to the dose, I evaporated the spirit, and thus brought the residuum to a dry state.
“In this state, it has very much the appearance of the Opium imported into Britain, particularly of that which is imported from Bengal, and which is a much softer substance than the Turkey opium. To this Opium-like substance, I have given the name of lactucarium. And from some trials which I have made with it, when exhibited under the form of pills, it appears to me to be little inferior in soporific power to the Opium which is brought from Bengal, which in general is much inferior in power to Turkey Opium.
“From the lactucarium thus obtained, I have formed a tincture, by dissolving it to the extent of one ounce in twelve of weak spirit, which is the proportion of Opium to spirit in the liquid laudanum of the Edinburgh college. To this formula I have given the name of tinctura lactucaril.
“I consider it as the best formula I have yet been able to contrive for obtaining the soporific and sedative powers of the lactuca sativa. And in different cases, I have, I think, seen manifest good effects from it, both as inducing sleep, allaying muscular action, and alleviating pain, the three great qualities of Opium, which demonstrate it to be one of the most powerful sedatives.
“At present, however, I intend nothing more but to communicate to the Caledonian Horticultural Society a method of preparing a soporific medicine from common lettuce. For ascertaining more fully its medicinal effects, I am at present engaged in a series of trials, which may, perhaps, be like-wise communicated to them.
“Meanwhile it will afford me great satisfaction, if the above short account shall draw the attention of others, particularly of professional gardeners, to the same subject, and shall lead to the discovery of a better method of obtaining a useful medicine, from a plant so easily cultivated in every garden.”
Editor’s Note: I haven’t yet been able to find any information on Dr. J. L. Duncan’s subsequent trials aimed at refining his technique and testing his medicine. They’re either lost in time or still waiting to be found.
However, here is an excellent article in the Caledonian Society papers of 1825, 15 years after the article above. Scroll to page 153 in the manuscript (162 in the sidebar) to begin reading the extremely informative and worthwhile article that talks about Dr. Duncan and others involved in the Opium Lettuce quest.
“Further observations on the Preparation of Soporific Medicines from Common Garden Lettuce.
By Mr John Young, Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.”
John Young’s Method of preparing the Inspissated Juice of Lettuce
“Take any quantity of the leaves and stalks of the lettuce when the plant is nearly ready to flower.
“Bruise them well and including them in a Hempen bag compress them strongly till they yield their juice.
“Let this juice be evaporated in flat vessels heated with boiling water.
“Let the evaporation be continued till the expressed juice be reduced to the consistence of thick honey
“According to the trials which I have made twelve pounds of lettuce will yield about eight ounces of inspissated juice”
John Young’s Method of preparing the Tincture of Lettuce Leaves
The tinctura foliorum siccatorum Lactuca Sativæ
“To one ounce of the dried leaves and stalks of the lettuce cut down add eight ounces of the diluted alcohol of the Edinburgh Pharmacopeia ( Editors note: that is a solution of ⅓ grain alcohol and ⅔ distilled water)
“Let the vessels containing this mixture be kept for a week in a warm place shaking it frequently
“Let the liquor then be strained through paper and kept for use”
John Young’s Method of Collecting The Milky Juice
“It occurred to me that the milky juice of the lettuce might be immediately collected from the plant in great abundance by absorbing it on cotton soon after it exudes from the plant and while it yet continues in a liquid state and by afterwards inspissating it by a moderate heat communicated from a water or vapour bath
I accordingly adopted that method this year – 1816.
I had the ice lettuce planted in rows and when the top of the stem was about a foot above the ground I then cut off about an inch from the top of each plant
The milky juice immediately began to rise above the wounded surface
I cut off the tops of all the plants before I began to collect. But after the portion which had exuded was removed by the cotton I found that the milky juice ceased to exude until I had made another wound
I began to collect at the end of the border where I made the first incision and then cut off a thin cross slice from the stem of each plant leaving fresh wounds as I went along
These I found covered with milky juice each time when I returned to where I set out
After going round the plants about five or six times in the way mentioned they ceased to give out any more milky juice at that time
But this process may be repeated two or three times in a day In the manner above described
In the manner above described I have collected more of the milky juice in one day than I did last year in five days when it was not removed till it had acquired a dry state and black colour
Having mentioned to a friend my mode of collecting the milky juice in its recent state by means of cotton, he suggested the use of a lightly moistened sponge for that purpose instead.
This I find answers better than the cotton; the juice being both more completely removed from the plant, and more easily expressed than from the cotton. The milky juice collected in this way squeezed into a tea cup or any similar vessel, soon acquires a dark-brown colour like opium obtained from the papaver somniferum, and has all its other sensible qualities.”
As icing on this sweet little cake here are some interesting current scientific references.
1. “Pilot study of the efficacy and safety of lettuce seed oil in patients with sleep disorders”
“Results: Improvements in the modified State-Trait Anxiety Inventory and the Sleep rating scale scores were significantly greater in patients receiving L. sativa seed oil compared with those on placebo (P < 0.05). No side effects were found to be attributable to L. sativa seed oil at the given dosage.”
2. “Evaluation of sedative effects of an intranasal dosage containing saffron, lettuce seeds and sweet violet in primary chronic insomnia: A randomized, double-dummy, double-blind placebo controlled clinical trial”
“Our study revealed a significant reduction in Insomnia Severity Index and Sleep Quality Index scores from baseline… Moreover, the use of hypnotic drugs in the intervention group was significantly reduced (P < 0.001), while in the control group was maintained at baseline level.”
Ed. Note: these results show less dependence on sleeping pills (hypnotic drugs) among those receiving the nasal treatment with saffron, sweet violet and lettuce seed oil. These were extracted in almond oil according to ancient Iranian techniques. Here’s some interesting validation of Saffron & Sweet Violet Oil.
“The Impact of Saffron on Symptoms of Withdrawal Syndrome in Patients Undergoing Maintenance Treatment for Opioid Addiction in Sabzevar Parish in 2017”
“Efficacy of Viola odorata in Treatment of Chronic Insomnia”
3. “Analysis of Fatty Acid Composition of Crude Seed Oil of Lactuca sativa L. by GC-MS and GC Methods”
Ed. Note: Before going into lettuce seed oil data and analysis, which show very interesting properties, the author covers the history of the use of medicinal lettuce opium in Iran. He says:
“In Traditional Iranian Pharmacy books, garden lettuce is named “Kass Bostani” and Hakim Aqili classified it as a “Ghazā’ye Dawā’ee” (Ghazā means Food; Dawā means Drug). It is said to be soporific, prescribed to cure insomnia and to be useful in thirst and feeling of hotness and burning in the stomach. Seeds of this herb reduce semen, suppress libido and are useful in cases of frequent nocturnal emissions. Fixed oil obtained from seeds of this plant is reputed to have hypnotic and brain moistening properties. “
Final note: Don’t know about you but I think brain-moistening sounds promising. Happy salads!