COMPOSITE FAMILY - Compositae: Tall or Wild Lettuce; Wild Opium; Horse-weed
Flower-heads--Numerous, small, about 1/4 in. across, involucre, cylindric, rays pale yellow; followed by abundant, soft, bright white pappus; the heads growing in loose, branching, terminal clusters. Stem: Smooth, 3 to 10 ft. high, leafy up to the flower panicle; juice milky. Leaves: Upper ones lance-shaped; lower ones often 1 ft. long, wavy-lobed, often pinnatifid, taper pointed, narrowed into flat petioles.
Preferred Habitat--Moist, open ground; roadsides.
Distribution--Georgia, westward to Arkansas, north to the British Possessions.
Few gardeners allow the table lettuce (sativa) to go to seed;
but as it is next of kin to this common wayside weed, it bears a
strong likeness to it in the loose, narrow panicles of cream-colored
flowers, followed by more charming, bright, white little pompons.
Where the garden varieties originated, or what they were, nobody
knows. Herodotus says lettuce was eaten as a salad in 550 B.C.; in
Pliny's time it was cultivated, and even blanched, so as to be had at
all seasons of the year by the Romans. Among the privy-purse expenses
of Henry VIII is a reward to a certain gardener for bringing "lettuze"
and cherries to Hampton Court. Quaint old Parkinson, enumerating "the
vertues of the lettice," says, "They all cool a hot and fainting
stomache." When the milky juice has been thickened (lactucarium),
it is sometimes used as a substitute for opium by regular
practitioners--a fluid employed by the plants themselves, it is
thought, to discourage creatures from feasting at their expense.
Certain caterpillars, however, eat the leaves readily; but offer
lettuce or poppy foliage to grazing cattle, and they will go without
food rather than touch it.
"What's one man's poison, Signer,
Is another's meat or drink."
Rabbits, for example, have been fed on the deadly nightshade for a week without injury.