This blog covers wild lettuce and California poppy, their constituents and uses, medicine making techniques, plant communication, sustainable wildcrafting techniques, and how to determine dosages for children.
*Note: If you are a busy, frazzled parent and must get your hands on some of this medicine now, you can purchase it online from Mountain Rose Herbs or go to your nearest health food store.
These herbs are of inestimable use for families with young children. Although they’ve both been primary members of my medicine cabinet for many years, they have become doubly (no pun intended) important with young twins, because they can used to relieve nighttime teething symptoms for the whole family. When mom and dad have frayed nerves and are hyper-aware at night after having been repeatedly roused, a little wild lettuce and poppy go a long way. Similarly, toddlers’ nerves will start to become frayed around the edges and their mouths will particularly benefit from these herbs’ analgesic and sedative properties.
Although wild lettuce (lactuca spp.) and California poppy (Eschscholtzia spp.) are not related, they are both in the class of calming, analgesic herbs that relieve physical and psychological symptoms of anxiety, and they both exude that sticky, bitter, milky latex upon being bruised or broken.
I prefer to use common folk names for Eschscholtzia—California poppy or copa de oro, because its Latin name (in addition to being a mouthful) came from the Russian surgeon and naturalist Eschscholtz, who landed on California’s shores in 1820. He was probably a good person, but I do question the mindset those who, upon landing in a place with its own complex ecosystem, history and society, name fauna that they have no personal relationship to after themselves. In the grand scheme though, names come and go, and the enduring healing powers of the plants remain. What we have control over is how we form relationships with these plants, and how we treat them.
I’ll get more into medicinal uses and medicine making instructions a little later, but this is a perfect segue to talk about sustainable wildcrafting. If your goal is to make physical medicine from a plant, it may be helpful to take a few steps back, and start with the goal of forming a relationship with that plant. Both of you will benefit in the long run. If the plant were a person, somebody who possessed amazing knowledge and healing power, you would likely approach them with respect and a genuine desire to get to know them in hopes that you may become a beneficiary of their wisdom. So while the physical healing properties of a plant will be passed on through its medicine regardless, the power of the medicine will be greatly enhanced when there’s a real energy exchange and mutual respect.
How to Connect with Plants, in Brief
Some people are at a loss at how to make a connection when plants and humans are such different creatures. This is where we really benefit from a shared evolutionary history. Although our mechanisms of physical operation are quite different, they are, at a more basic, essential level, similar. We are physical organisms who breathe, extrete waste, reproduce, have a desire to further life, have feelings and complex means of communication. Indeed, from an evolutionary perspective, plants are our elders. They created an atmosphere that was friendly to other organisms millions of years before humans showed up, paving the way for all animal life. Our relationship is symbiotic—in simple terms, we inhale the chemicals they exhale, and visa versa.
Long before plants’ chemical constituents were extracted and their behavior observed under a microscope, humans learned, in an intimate, experiential way, how to heal with them.
So approaching a plant with the attitude that there are more similarities than differences gives you a leg up. Communicating with plants doesn’t have to be a long, painful drawn out process, either. Start by sitting down and saying hello. Speak out loud—introduce yourself. Tell the plant a bit about who you are and where you come from. Touch it (if it’s safe). Smell it. Observe its environment. Are there many of its kind growing here, or few? After you introduce yourself, it’s nice to leave a little gift. Tell the plant about the gift. My favorites are a piece of hair plucked from my head (it carries your DNA signature), a bead or something made with human hands (plants think it’s a novel thing that we have opposable thumbs and are particularly titillated when we use them to engage in beauty-making pursuits), or a pinch of cornmeal and tobacco. Make an effort to open your heart to the plant. I mean sit there, breathe into your heart and really feel it opening.
This is how it begins. You don’t have to do anything more than this—just sit with the plant whenever you have a few minutes to spare. Touch it and say hello when you walk by. If you play a musical instrument, play to the plant or sing to it. Lie down next to it under a full moon at night. Kiss its leaves or take them into your own hand and feel the energy pulsing between you. Eventually, if you listen with your heart, you will begin to perceive the plant speaking to you. It may sound like your own voice in your head any you may question it, but keep listening. Once you are able to hear the plant speak to you, it may share specific instructions on how to use its medicine. Cultivating an attitude of patience, openness and suspended judgment and expectations (mostly of yourself) is beneficial. Purchasing, or making (instructions in another blog post) a flower essence and taking it regularly can also create further opening.
When you feel the time is right, you may proceed in harvesting the plant for medicine according to the permission it gives you. In general, be judicious about harvesting. Make sure you’re harvesting in an area where the soil isn’t contaminated and where the plant is plentiful, and only take what you need, or less.
California poppy is in the Papaver family, a relative of the opium poppy, so think sedative but with a far, far milder effect than opium. Indeed, it is safe for use with children, and although written records of this go back to first European contact, people living in poppy’s habitat have likely been using it with children for thousands of years. The plant is best harvested in mid-summer when it’s beginning to go to seed. I sparingly harvest some of the flowers, leaves, stems and immature seedpods, where the content of isoquinoline alkaloids are highest. Mature seedpods dry out and are best left preserved to replenish next year’s stock. Sometimes I’ll go back and harvest the roots of a single plant a couple months later, in early fall, and combine it with the leaf-flower-seed tincture once they’re strained for a stronger kick.
California poppy is appropriate for infants and children in cases of over-stimulation and over-tiredness, when they are out of their routine and cranky. I bust out the poppy tincture when my toddlers have had poor sleep for more than a night or two in a row due to teething pain. It addresses the pain as well as the sleeplessness. It also has antispasmodic properties and can be used for a hot, dry cough, although I prefer lactuca for this use. Similarly, it’s a great adult remedy for insomnia brought on by over-stimulation and over-exhaustion/exhaustion.
In higher doses, it induces a pleasant, warm feeling of relaxation and letting go—the proverbial “chill pill,” which makes it great for winding down in the evening after situational stress, or in a state of anxiety, or with premenstrual tension accompanied by general muscular skeletal tension, headaches and uterine cramps.
California poppy is contraindicated for glaucoma and should be used with extreme caution or replaced with skullcap for pregnant women.
I absolutely love this plant (my stepdaughter would say, You say that about all plants, Bethy). Well, what I love in particular is its appearance, somewhere between dull, foreboding and primitive. It has a single line of spikes lacing the back of its stem and smaller spikes on the backs of the leaves, and looks positively weed-like—a weed of the ugliest and most sinister variety. If you break a leaf, the milky latex drips and oozes out abundantly, and can be applied directly to burns. Its nicknames include acrid lettuce, prickly lettuce and little opium. One of its primary constituents is lactucone, and it also contains a small amount of hyoscamine. Like California poppy, extracts of lactuca are completely safe and non-addictive.
Lactuca is a bitter, cooling herb that acts very similarly to California poppy, as an analgesic and sedative. It’s perfect to address the muscle tension and anxious mind that build up due to acute stress and sleep loss. It’s my very favorite cough remedy for hot, dry, clingy coughing fits that won’t let go and act up particularly at night. A good dose of lactuca will bring deep sleep and relief to the bronchial region. It is also safe for children, although poppy is always my go-to, perhaps just because its personality seems to resonate so well with kids.
Wild lettuce fun fact: All cultivated garden variety lettuces will eventually turn back into their wild form if left alone for long enough. She cannot be tamed, this one.
Wild lettuce is best harvested around the same time of year as California poppy, right before it goes into bloom or during bloom.
The best menstruum for both poppy and lactuca is alcohol. When I make herbal extracts, I follow the folk method. Since whole plants are a beautiful symphony of chemical constituents, they cannot be patented and used to make a profit. Therefor, by its very nature, plant medicine is of the domain of the people—it belongs to everyone. So plant medicine should be accessible to everyone. To make a simple poppy tincture, fill the appropriate sized mason jar ¾ of the way with plant matter (semi-loosely packed), then fill the jar to the top with vodka. My old standby is Shmirnoff Blue Label, which is an appropriate strength (50% alcohol), but lately I’ve favored artisanal, locally produced, organic vodkas, which are a slightly lower strength (40% alcohol). Make sure your tincture is labeled, give it a good shake, make sure no plant matter rests above the liquid level and place in a cool, dark place for 4-6 weeks. You can check on it and shake it up periodically for good measure, or charge it outside under the full or new moon and if you wanna get witchy with it.
After the appropriate time has passed, strain the tincture through a mesh sieve lined with cotton muslin. When the liquid has passed through, gather the muslin around the plant matter and give it a gentle squeeze, then discard the plant matter in the compost and wash and re-use the muslin.
Store your tincture in a dark glass jar in a cool, dark place. It will keep for several years in these conditions.
How to Determine Dosages for Children
This information comes from Rosemary Gladstar. There are two methods to determining dosages for kids.
- Young’s Rule: Children’s age divided by 12 plus the age. Dosage for a 4 year old would be 4/12 + 4, or 4/16ths, or ¼ of the adult dosage.
- Cowling’s Rule: The year number of the next birthday is divided by 24. If the child is 3, turning 4, 4/24 is 1/6 of the adult dosage.
The important thing to remember with herbs is that the more sensitive, or open the nervous system is, the more powerful the medicine will be, which is why kids do great with homeopathics. Think: less is more. Western culture is used to strong allopathic medicine in large doses—sometime we assault our systems with too much medicine. Herbs should be used with knowledge and caution with children. I have seen rampant over-usage of essential uses with infants and young children that can have negative long-term effects. So if you’re questioning the dosage, go with the smaller dose.
For my twins, who weigh about 22lbs, I give 7-12 drops of poppy in a warm bottle, and only at night as it can make them drowsy. I usually also add an ounce of strong chamomile catnip tea. My eight year-old weighs around 50lbs and she gets about a dropper full of poppy. I am sensitive and, I take about 2 tbsp poppy or lactuca to knock me out, and give a full shot to my husband.
I’d love to hear about your experience and adventures with these herbs! Post comments and questions below.