Lactuca sativa describes the cultivated forms, of which var. capitata is Cabbage Lettuce, or Head Lettuce, because it forms a head, like cabbage, hence the name capitata. The other well-known lettuce is var. longifolia, Cos lettuce, called after the Greek island of that name. Another name for this kind is Romaine Lettuce. The word lettuce itself is through Old French laiture, from Latin lactuca, itself from the Greek. In that language milk is gala, and the Latin equivalent is lac - hence lactuca, which simply means milk plant (Potter & Sargent). All species contain a milky latex, which in the case of L. virosa, Great Prickly Lettuce, is actually gathered for medicinal purposes.
Its name implies that it was known to the ancient Greeks, and it figures in their mythology, too. It was much used as a funeral food, especially in memory of Adonis (or, according to another legend, Phaeon of Lesbos). Adonis had been hidden by Aphrodite beneath a lettuce (!), a boar ate the leaves, and by so doing managed to wound Adonis mortally (Gubernatis. 1878). Another version says that Adonis was struck by the boar after having eaten a lettuce (Gubernatis. 1872), something that probably means that he lost his sexual powers after eating it. (Gerard was saying the same thing a very long time afterwards, and so was Thomas Hill). This belief is an inversion of the original one, for lettuce was thought to have the power of arousing love and of promoting childbearing if eaten by a wife. But by the 19th century we have a saying "O'er much lettuce in the garden will prevent a young wife's bearing" (Notes and Queries. vol 7; 1853p152). Women were wary of lettuce, for it would cause barrenness. The belief probably arose because it was thought that the plant itself was sterile, and was regarded as antaphrodisiac, according to the 10th cen-btury Geopontica (Rose). It is recorded that women in Richmond, Surrey, would carefully count the lettuce in the garden, for too many would make them sterile (R L Brown). What the maximum acceptable number was is not revealed. As against this, lettuce is included in the long list of plants quite mistakenly supposed to be aphrodisiacs (Haining). The Romans certainly thought of it as promoting sexual potency (R L Brown), though much later, Gerard said the juice "cooleth and quencheth the naturall seed if it be too much used, but procureth sleepe".
All lettuces have narcotic properties, though cultivation has lessened the effects considerably, but it is still used for making skin lotions useful in sunburn, and roughness of the skin (Grieve. 1931). These narcotic properties have been recognised for a long time: for example, from Bartholomew Anglicus - "For the frenzy - ... the temples and forehead shall be anointed with the juice of lettuce". Gerard, later on, pointed out that "it causeth sleepe" (it was called Sleepwort in Anglo-Saxon times (Ellacombe)). It has been used for liver complaints since early times, but what should we make of an American belief that eating lettuce will prevent smallpox? (H M Hyatt).
Leucanthemum vulgare > OX-EYE DAISY
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