If you like to forage wild plants for your table, you’re also aware that it’s very important to identify them correctly. It’s especially important to know the differences between wild lettuce vs. dandelion, because while the two plants look alike, wild lettuce should not be ingested. Dandelion on the other hand is edible and can be used in salads and other dishes. Wild lettuce does have some medicinal use, but any preparations made from the plant should be done professionally. With this in mind, let’s take a look at the similarities and differences between wild lettuce vs. dandelion, where to find them, how to grow dandelion in your own garden, and more.
|Classification||Asteraceae family||Asteraceae family|
|Scientific Name||Lactuca virosa||Taraxacum officinale|
|Alternative Names||Opium Lettuce, Lactucarium, Great Lettuce, Tall Lettuce, Bitter Lettuce, Strong Scented Lettuce, Poisonous Lettuce, Green Endive||Lion’s Tooth, Wild Endive, Puff Ball, Royal Herb, Irish Daisy, Clock Flower, Bitterwort, Blow Ball|
|Description||Plants grow up to 6 feet in height|
Leaves are long, oval in shape and have serrated edges, with small hairs on the underside
Yellow flowers grow in a cluster on a single stem.
Flowers mature into fluffy round seed pods
|Plant grows up to 12 inches in height. Long leaves tapered at bottom are bright green with jagged edges, soft to touch. |
Flower stems can grow up to 30 inches high. Each stem holds one bright yellow flower that matures into a fluffy, round seedhead like a puffball.
Flowers open in sunlight and close in the dark and rain
|Uses||Used for medicinal purposes||Leaves, flowers, seeds, and root are all used|
Leaves and seeds can be used in salads, smoothies, stews etc.
Flowers are used to make wine
Roots are used to make dandelion tea
Wild lettuce and dandelion plants are frequently mistaken for each other, and that’s understandable because they look very much alike and both belong to the same plant family, namely Asteraceae. Familiar flowering plants like aster, daisy and sunflower also belong to this family.
The scientific name for wild lettuce is Lactuca virosa and it refers to the white, bitter latex produced by all of the wild lettuce plant. Known as lactucarium, this bitter sap is found in the roots, leaves, and stem. Lactuca is the Latin word for milk extract and virosa stands for something that is toxic or has a strong and unpleasant taste or smell.
The scientific name for dandelion is Taraxacum officinale. The word Taraxacum is derived from the Greek words taraxos, which means disorder, and akos, which means remedy. The second part of the name, officinale, is due to the fact that it was officially recognized as a medicinal herb.
The name dandelion itslef originates in the Middle English dendelyoun, which was derived from the Anglo-French dent de lion or lion’s tooth. It refers to the characteristic jagged edges of the leaves of the plant.
So just from the scientific names you can see that the two plants are very different, and while dandelion can be used for all kinds of edible purposes, wild lettuce should be treated with caution and should not be ingested.
Wild lettuce is native to Eurasia and dandelion plants are believed to have originated in North America. Howvver, they are now found widely around the world including the Americas, Europe, Asia and Australia.
While dandelion and wild lettuce plants look very much like each other, they can be distinguished by the size of the plant and the shape of the leaves. Let’s look at their appearance ij detail.
Dandelion is already a very familiar plant to many people, so you’ll recognize the bright green leaves with jagged, indebted edges. Despite their shape, the leaves are not sharp to the touch. Wild lettuce leaves have a long, oval shape tapering at one end. The leaves have serrated edges and small hairs on the underside.
The dandelion plant can grow up to 12 inches in height, and the single flower stem can grow as high as 30 inches. Wild lettuce plants are much taller and can grow up to 6 feet in height. Also, wild lettuce has a hard stem, sometimes with purple spots. They may have small prickles on the bottom. Dandelions stems are soft and green, and they are hollow inside.
Dandelion flowers are easily recognized and bright yellow. Each stem bears a single flower, opens in the light and closes in the rain and the dark. They appear mostly in May and June, but they can bloom throughout the year.
Wild lettuce flowers look exactly like dandelion flowers, but you will find several on the same stem, while with dandelion there is always just one flower on the stem. They flower in July and August.
On maturity, the dandelion flower becomes a round fluffy seedhead, which we know as the familiar dandelion clock. The wild lettuce seedhead looks exactly the same. The light, fluffy seed pods are blown around by the wind until they settle in a spot with suitable conditions to produce a new plant.
Dandelion plants have been used for a number of purposes, for food and medicine. The leaves can be eaten raw or cooked. Young dandelion leaves and seeds can be added to salads, juice, stews and stirfrys.
Dandelion wine is made from the flowers and the root is used to make tea. Dandelion plants also serve as food for many animals, wild and domestic. As we saw earlier, dandelion plants are also used for medicinal purposes.
Some people do eat wild lettuce in the same way as dandelion, but it is not recommended. Not only is the taste very bitter, it can have all kinds of harmful side effects. At the least, it can give you stomach cramps. However, the sap, leaves, and seeds of wild lettuce plants are used for medicinal purposes, as a pain reliever. Again, it’s better to use these remedies prepared professionally than to try and make them on your own.
If you decide that you want to grow either dandelion or wild lettuce plants in your kitchen garden, it’s easy to find the seeds. You can propagate them just as nature does, by blowing on the seedhead to disperse the seeds in the area where you want the plants to grow.
When the conditions are right, the seeds will send up sprouts and grow into dandelion or wild lettuce plants. Some nurseries also carry wild lettuce seedlings that you can transplant.
Dandelion leaves should be harvested when they are new and tender, when they are least bitter and full of flavor. Flowers likewise should be picked when they are young and bright yellow. Dandelion roots can be harvested at any time.
Wild Lettuce vs. Dandelion: Special Features
One of the most important differences between the two plants is their lifespan. Dandelions are perennial, which means that the plants will renew themselves year after year. Wild lettuce on the other hand is a biennial plant, which means that it has a lifespan of just two years.
However, it’s not often easy or even possible to identify and differentiate the plants visually on this basis.
Wild Lettuce vs. Dandelion: Why It’s Important to Learn the Differences
Foragers know that in order to successfully add wild plants to your diet, it’s necessary to identify them correctly. This is especially true of plants like Wild Lettuce vs. Dandelion, since they look very similar and can be mistaken for each other. But while all parts of the dandelion plant can be safely consumed, wild lettuce can produce some undesirable side effects and is best avoided.
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The photo featured at the top of this post is © Niliane Fatima Pierok/Shutterstock.com
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- NCSU, Available here: https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/lactuca/
- The Spruce, Available here: https://www.thespruce.com/how-to-grow-dandelion-greens-2539624
- The Homesteading Hippy, Available here: https://thehomesteadinghippy.com/wild-lettuce-lookalikes/