by Barbara Walvoord
Walk along Bassett Brook Road just below Blueberry Lane, and stand on the stone bridge, looking down into the stream and wetland.
There’s lots to see.
The reason for the bridge is a marsh and a small, many-branched stream that crosses under the road via a concrete viaduct.
The bridge and viaduct are part of an extensive drainage system installed to protect the flow of water through our wetlands, despite the fact that houses and roads were built here.
The wetland, stream, and bridge create a unique environment. What lives here?
Those very tall plants you see, with oblong, deeply-lobed leaves shaped like dandelion leaves, are wild lettuce (Lactuca Canadensis).
At the top of the plant, you’ll see many small, white flowers on multiple branches.
This species is native to North America, but its relatives populate Europe and Asia.
Humans have used wild lettuce for ages, because its sap contains lactucarium, which has a mild opium-like quality. Ancient Egyptians pictured wild lettuce in their hieroglyphs. Modern herbal medicine websites still feature it today. It can be used for insomnia, anxiety, neuroses, dry coughs, whooping cough, rheumatic pain, and hyperactivity in children (http://www.pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Lactuca+canadensis). In case you’re interested, cut off the head of the plant and drain the sap into a ceramic bowl, where it will harden. The sap, or the plant parts, fresh or dried, can then be made into a tea.
You can eat the young leaves in your salad, just as you would dandelion leaves, though the mature leaves are supposedly bitter (they’re very mature at this time of the year. I did not try eating them).
The descendent of wild lettuce–the domestic lettuce we plant in our gardens–has had the opium bred out of it, and it has more tender, milder-tasting leaves. Fine, I suppose, but not worth a hieroglyph.