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Lactuca virosa grows as a biennial, leafy stalk stemming from a large brown taproot. It starts as a low rosette at first, but extends with age, typically measuring up to four feet in height. It is a wild relative of lactuca sativa, which contains the group of cultivars that are commonly used in salads. Virosa, one of several species known as wild lettuce, is sometimes used in salads too. But it is quite bitter and therefore less palatable. All wild lettuce species have this quality, but it has been bred out of lactuca sativa over hundreds of years of cultivation. More so than an edible, virosa was used by doctors as a medicinal, particularly a sedative. It is also called opium lettuce because the plant exudes a sticky, off-white latex when damaged. Used as tincture, drank in tea or eaten as dried latex balls, L. virosa was used to treat restlessness and insomnia, coughs, colic, hyperactivity and pain. Its effects are the result of lactucopicrin and lactucin. It is still sold by many herb shops today, although the quality seems to vary much. Fresh herb or freshly collected latex is probably more reliable.

Growing information: Lactuca virosa prefers sandy or loamy soils but is not particularly picky. You can start your seeds indoors in the early spring to get a head start on the growing season. Plant your seeds on the surface of your potting mixture and just barely cover them with soil. Cover the pots with saran wrap until germination begins. They can be transplanted when they are a few inches. This is best off being done before the temperatures get too hot. Seeds can also be sown directly outdoors. But they are made to be carried by wind so you may lose a few if you have strong winds. To prevent this, make sure the soil stays moist so it will hold together. These plants prefer full sun. They are not frost tender and will return the following year.
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