Dear Readers, during my recent visit to Barnwood I recounted finding this plant, cheerfully announcing that it was caper spurge, and being so astonished when I looked at the yellow, daisy-like flowers that I had to check that they belonged to the same plant. Hah! There’s nothing like nature for putting you in your place when you get too confident. This rather handsome plant (at least when it’s standing up) is in fact prickly lettuce, the closest living relative of our cultivated lettuce (Lactuca sativa). You wouldn’t think it to look at the plant, with its waxy leaves with their spiny teeth along the edge and their prickles on the midrib – it looks much less edible than dandelion or even sowthistle. However, apparently the young leaves can be eaten as a salad ingredient.
The leaves clasp around the stem, and the plant exudes white latex if cut – this substance is known as ‘lactucarium’ or ‘lettuce opium’, and can be dried and used as a soporific. It is said to induce a feeling of mild euphoria, and was used in the UK and the USA as a cure for insomnia and as a mild analgesic from the 1900’s onwards. It was also included in lozenges and cough syrup as a way of easing a sore throat and dry, tickly cough. Lettuce itself is sometimes cited as a food that has remarkable calming properties, although having seen a lot of very anxious rabbits I’m not completely convinced.
The flowers are rather small compared to the size of the plant – the one I saw was flattened on the ground, but would easily have been five feet tall if vertical. The flowers only open in the morning, a few at a time.
According to my Harrap’s Wild Flowers, prickly lettuce was introduced to the UK in 1632, and while still a plant mainly of southern England, it is happily moving north and west. However, in Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica he remarks that the plant is ‘probably a native’. He also says that because the upper leaves are held erect in a roughly north-south plane, prickly lettuce has been given the name of ‘compass plant’ (by botanists rather than by ordinary folk, though I believe there is some overlap 🙂 ). Prickly lettuce is found throughout Europe, North Africa and Asia, and is naturalised in a number of other countries.
My further investigations into prickly lettuce have led me to the cult of the Ancient Egyptian god Min, usually portrayed holding his erect penis in his left hand and raising a flail with his right. Prickly lettuce was sacred to the god, probably because the latex had a resemblance to semen, and Min was a fertility god. Lettuce was offered to the god as a sacrifice and then eaten by the men who had brought it (in a kind of ‘take a bottle to a party and then take it home when you leave’ fashion). During the Festival of Min, the statue would be taken out to the fields in the hope that the god would increase the harvest, and there were many naked rituals, including the climbing of an enormous tent pole.
It’s worth remembering that the fertility of humans, and of fields, was such a mystery (and in a way it still is), and was so important, that keeping in with Min was undoubtedly worth a bit of naked-clambering and a few lettuces.
In Greek mythology, Aphrodite is said to have laid the dead Adonis on a bed of wild lettuce, which has led an association between lettuce and food for the dead. Look as I might, I can’t find a single painting of Adonis dying on any kind of salad vegetable, so you’ll have to make do with this one, which is by John William Waterhouse and apparently shows Adonis waking up in a bed of anemones. Much nicer, I’m sure you’ll agree.
And now, a poem. Sadly, poems about prickly lettuce are difficult to find, but as I remarked earlier, ‘our’ plant is the closest living relative of the cultivated lettuce. And so, here is a wonderful poem addressed to a lettuce. I love the poet’s wry voice, and the serious truths that this superficially simple poem conceals. Let me know what you think, as always.
To a Head of Lettuce
May I venture to address you, vegetal friend?
A lettuce is no less than me, so I respect you,
though it’s also true I may make a salad of you,
later. That’s how we humans roll. Our species
is blowing it, bigtime, as you no doubt know,
dependent as you are on water and soil
we humans pollute. You’re a crisphead,
an iceberg lettuce, scorned in days of yore
for being mostly fiber and water. But new
research claims you’ve gotten a bad rap,
that you’re more nutritious than we knew.
Juicy and beautiful, your leaves can be used
as tortillas. If you peer through a lettuce leaf,
the view takes on the translucent green of
the newest shoots. Sitting atop your pile,
next to heaps of radicchio, you do seem
a living head, a royal personage who
should be paid homage. I am not demanding
to be reassured. I just want to know what you know,
what you think your role is—and hear what you
have to say about suffering long denied, the wisdom
of photosynthesis, stages of growth you’ve passed
through. I can almost hear your voice as I pay
for you at the cash register, a slightly gravely sound,
like Kendrick Lamar’s voice, or early Bob Dylan,
both singers of gruff poetic truth. Nothing less
was expected from you, sister lettuce, nothing less.
Photo One by By Me – I took this photo in The Hague, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=937504
Photo Two by By Jeantosti, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=790020
Photo Three by Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1021227
Photo Four by By zolakoma – https://www.flickr.com/photos/zolakoma/2862898326/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16089330
Photo Five By GTBacchus – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6820388