One of the things I like about gathering and eating wild plants is how it evokes time travel. For example, eating prickly lettuce (Lactuca serriola)—commonly believed to be the ancestor of modern, cultivated lettuce—is like taking a journey back in evolutionary time, back to before we bred so many of the good things out of the plants we eat.
Prickly lettuce is prickly, as the name suggests, with small bristles on the leaf margins and in a line along the underside of the leaf midvein. The leaves—both in the spring rosettes and the mature plants—suggest dandelions, as they start out with wavy margins that are not deeply lobed, and develop into leaves “with serrations, clefts and lobes,” as Cattail Bob Seebeck describes them in his 2012 textbook, Survival Plants of Colorado, Vol. 1.
One distinctive characteristic of prickly lettuce is that the mature plant turns its leaves sideways to point east and west, as Euell Gibbons relates in Stalking the Faraway Places (1973).
This is the plant’s way of maximizing exposure to sunlight, Sam Thayer writes in Nature’s Garden (2010); the result is a plant that looks as if it “has been pressed between two pieces of plywood.”
Prickly lettuce, like dandelions, exudes a milky sap, though I’ve had to cut the leaf veins and squeeze for a bit to find it in young specimens. Mature plants develop small, dandy-like yellow flowers.
My interest in prickly lettuce developed slowly, like the evolutionary processes that relegated the plant to obscurity in the first place. That’s because prickly lettuce is a bitter green—sometimes very bitter indeed. In fact, some authors, like Cattail Bob (2012), consider it to be only marginally edible for this reason.
So go ahead and bite off a big piece of a mature prickly lettuce leaf, chew, and swallow—I dare you!
On more than one occasion I gathered a mature plant from Gregg’s stepdad’s back yard in Aurora—because L. serriola is a very common weed to agricultural and disturbed places across the U.S.—only to give up on its bitter taste and toss it into the refuse bin. But in the process I learned the plant, and where it grows—so that this year, when it first popped up, I was able to recognize the rosettes and make use of a few distinguishing characteristics from Thayer to confirm my identification.
Dichotomous Keys Make Me Want a Lobotomy
For a wild plant aficionado, I’ll admit that I haven’t always loved the details—the complexity involved in identifying plants. But as if he were reading my mind, in his intro to the Lactuca chapter in Nature’s Garden, Sam Thayer lectures me: “So do not shy away from details; and don’t resent Nature for being so replete with complexity. …It is not the burden of the naturalist to learn this complexity; it is the awesome reality. …Let the details excite you—for there are enough of them to excite you for the rest of your life.”
He treats the Lactucacae (lettuce) tribe together in his book, along with individual plant accounts for most of them, and lists seven genera that comprise what he says are the most common, widespread, and useful food plants within the lettuce tribe: Cichorium (chicory), Hypochaeris (cat’s ear), Lactuca (lettuce), Prenanthes, Sonchus (sow thistle), Taraxacum (dandelion), and Tragopogon (salsify). All have milky sap and petal-like ray flowers.
Then he gives a dichotomous key—“a tool used for identifying plants by repeatedly deciding which of two technical descriptions applies to it, narrowing down the number of possibilities with each set of descriptions until the special is identified”— to differentiate between them. You start at the beginning of the key and match up characteristics with your plant, ruling out others, as you proceed to each subsequent set of characteristics like a Choose Your Own Adventure story until you identify the plant.
So I was able to confirm I had a Lactuca because the “leaves are toothed, lobed, or with wavy or irregular margins,” the “midrib cross-section triangular, forming a sharp or nearly sharp keel,” and there were “erect hairs or spines found along the keeled bottom on midvein, latex white or light brown (except L. muralis).”
Okay, Sam’s right. That was kind of fun. And I no longer desire a lobotomy.
He describes several wild lettuces in his book—one he refers to as “good lettuce” (L. canadensis) and another he calls bitter lettuce (L. biennis)—both of which are native species. He agrees that the introduced species, L. serriola, can be extremely bitter after the flowering stalk develops, but notes that the young specimens are good in salad, when the bristles are so soft as to be “totally innocuous.”
Field & Prep
This spring, after I found my first prickly lettuce rosette, I started seeing them all over the place in the Denver area. I decided to pick the light green rosettes from shady spots where the leaves looked healthiest.
Because I still had to get them back to Breckenridge after a day in the hot sun, I opted to pluck the rosettes from the soil, roots intact. This is not a practice I follow when harvesting plants with small or sensitive populations, as you often kill a plant when you take a root—but for a weedy, generally unwanted, prolific vegetable, I didn’t see a problem with it.
I kept the plants in a plastic grocery bag before delivering them to the cooler in the car. (For ages I feared I wasn’t a “real” forager when I used plastic grocery bags, until I read in John Kallas’ 2012 book that he is a proponent because “plastic maintains moisture, white reflects the heat of the sun, and these bags have built in handles.” Whew!)
Once back at the house, I chopped the leaves from their roots and swirled them in a bowl of cold water to refresh, followed by a forceful spraying with the faucet. They damaged easier than the mustards but not too bad after their long journey.
One thing I like to do if the location I collect from is suspect—like too close to a dog-walking zone for comfort—is to soak my plants in a water and vinegar bath in the hopes of killing any unwanted microbes. My friend Rosa soaks her store-bought lettuce in cold water with lemon, a practice she brought with her to the States from Mexico. So that seems to me like it would work well too.
Mixed Greens the Wild Way
I had planned to spare you another one of my genius recipes for salad, but alas, in the end I decided not to. Instead, let me assert again how nice it is to be able to make one’s own fancy mixed greens with but a little help from the grocery store. Lacking cultivated lettuce, I used chopped green cabbage as a base, adding my wild bounty of chopped prickly lettuce, dandelion greens, and musk mustard (Chorispora tenella), and topping with a soy, ginger, and oil-based salad dressing.
Gregg was surprised how much he enjoyed the salad—the prickly lettuce in particular. Here’s to another rousing success with wild plants!
Tagged with: prickly lettuce
Filed under: edible
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