Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the June 24, 2012 Newsletter issued from the woods of the Loess Hill Region a few miles east of Natchez, Mississippi, USA

Sometimes you meet organisms you've known all your life but maybe they are in a new place or they're doing something you've never seen them do, and you don't recognize them. That's how it was when next to one of the neighborhood's abandoned trailers I met the 12 feet tall or taller (3.7m) plants shown below:


A leaf from one of those plants, looking like it's from an enormous Dandelion, is shown below:

Wild Lettuce, LACTUCA CANADENSIS, leaf

Despite the plant's rambunctious vigor, its heads of flowers and fruits were dainty and small, rather like those of a dwarf Dandelions, as shown below:

Wild Lettuce, LACTUCA CANADENSIS, flowers and fruiting head

Obviously this was some kind of wild lettuce, genus Lactuca, of the Composite or Sunflower Family, but I'd never seen a wild lettuce as big and course-bodied as this. When I "keyed the plants out" in the online Flora of North America treatment for the wild lettuces, I could hardly believe what I came up with: It was LACTUCA CANADENSIS, sometimes called Canada Lettuce, but more generally just Wild Lettuce.

It's a species I'm accustomed to thinking of as seldom over head high, usually smaller. It's a biennial, so in the spring of its second year it produces a rosette of soft, dandelion-like leaves that are sweet and nutritious, making excellent salad ingredients. But as soon as the weather warms the rosette draws upon the energy stockpiled in carbohydrates in its substantial, Dandelion-like taproot to "bolt" and create a much bigger plant. Flora of North America says that this Wild Lettuce species can reach 4.5 meters -- 15 feet -- and higher!

Some wild lettuces are invasives from Eurasia but this one is a native American species occurring throughout North America in all but the driest and coldest parts, as well as Mexico and Central America, plus it's "gone wild" as an invasive in Eurasia.

What a pleasure seeing such healthy, robust and even good-tasting plants doing their best to nurture a spot where people who could do no better than abandon their derelict trailers there.