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Soporific Salads and Lettuce Opium: One from the Archives

June 9th, 2011 · 4 Comments ·

Well, one thing growing in this cold Seattle spring is lettuce!  Last night while picking a head of Romaine for the dinner salad, I saw the familiar “milk” rising from the cut.  Such amazing organisms, the plants among us–full of life and secrets.  I decided that as long as my photographer-husband is on a little hiatus (sampling ginger-garlic crickets in Vietnam!), it would be the perfect time to pull this old post, which I quite like,  from the early Tangled Nest archives.  Enjoy.

Remember when the Flopsy Bunnies ate so much of Mr. McGregor’s lettuce that they fell into a deep sleep?  Mr. McGregor was able to pick them right up, put them in a gunny sack and take them home, where Mrs. McGregor vowed to cut off their heads, skin them, and use them to line her coat.

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“It is said that eating too much lettuce is soporific,” Beatrix Potter wrote.

I used to think that Potter’s sleep-inducing lettuce  was a plot device, but the milky sap released by cut salad greens is indeed known to calm the nervous system, and to possess a mildly soporific, sometimes euphoric effect. Lettuce is actually named for this sap.  Lactuca, the genus name for both wild and domestic lettuces, is rooted in the Latin lact-, milk, and though our garden varieties were bred by modern agriculturalists to have less of this bitter  substance, plenty of it is still released when we cut into the base of most lettuce heads.   Lettuce sap contains the chemical Lactucarium, a non-narcotic sedative and analgesic, structurally similar to opium, but not nearly as strong.

This year I planted Bullet Green Romaine from Territorial Seed Company.  It's super-sweet and beautiful--I think it's the best romaine I've ever had.
“Lettuce milk” released from freshly-cut romaine.  This year I planted Bullet Green from Territorial Seed Company. It’s super-sweet and beautiful–I think it’s the best romaine I’ve ever grown.

In ancient Greece, guests were served lettuce soup at the end of a meal to help usher them into dreamland.  Turning this notion of hospitality on its head, the Roman Emperor Domitian was known to torture his guests, who were forbidden to fall asleep in his presence, by serving them heaps of lettuce at the beginning of state dinners (Domitian was assassinated in the year 96–”perhaps justly,” writes Jack Staub in 75 Exciting Vegetables).  And of course throughout Europe salads are still traditionally served at the end of a meal, an homage to lettuce’s sedative properties.

There have been modern scientific studies concluding  that the sleep-inducing qualities of lettuce is simply superstition, but I am somewhat more inclined to believe centuries of cross-cultural medicinal usage above a sterile lab result.

(A Beatrix Potter aside:  I am a fan.  I have heard her dismissed as “Too Cutesie,” which is a terrible midsreading.  Yes, those bunnies are pretty darn adorable, but no cuter than a real passel of sleeping baby rabbits.  Potter’s animals are perfectly wild beneath their ill-fitting clothes, and her reading of the human-wild relationship is wry, biting, and clear-sighted:  “Don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden.  Your father had an accident there.  He was put into a pie by Mrs. McGregor.”)

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Carol Y.

    Super interesting! I always thought it was that Beatrix Potter was saying that bunnies eating lettuce was like us eating some huge, satisfying, fatty meal that puts you to sleep. We are big fans of hers too. There are lots of times when the line from Squirrel Nutkin is appropriate to life (something like): This looks like the end of the story, but it isn’t.

  • Bruce Watkins

    The VeveteenRabbit, and The Wind the Willows are both children’s books, but I have found some quite sage advice in them from time to time.
    During WWII, the US govt did experiments with wild lettuce, trying to reduce our dependence on painkillers made from imported opiates. I don’t believe it was much of a success.

  • Kelly Coyne

    I remember this post! But like soup, it’s just as good the second time around. ;) I think we’ve bred a lot of the potency out of our lettuce, along with the bitterness. The salads the Greeks were eating were probably wilder, so may have indeed had those characteristics. I’ve heard that wild lettuce can be tinctured into a soporific–I keep meaning to try it, but haven’t.

  • trashmaster46

    I had no idea – I’d always thought the bunnies fell asleep because that’s what you do after eating too much. Neat!

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