The Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc.

Plants of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden

The oldest public wildflower garden in the United States

Prickly Lettuce

Common Name
Prickly Lettuce (Milk Thistle, English Thistle, Compass Plant)


Scientific Name
Lactuca serriola L.


Plant Family
Aster (Asteraceae)

Garden Location


Prime Season
Late Summer Flowering



Prickly Lettuce is an introduced and widely naturalized erect annual or biennial plant (usually annual), growing from 1 to 5+ feet high on leafy stems that contain a milky juice. The stem is light green, smooth, except the base may have prickles, and unbranched below the floral array.

The leaves are alternate, up to 12 inches long, entire to toothed to pinnately divided with narrow to arrow shaped bases. Edges are spiny and wavy and the underside of the whitish-green mid-rib has spines. Each leaf has a pair of angular lobes that clasp the stem; the leaf lobes tend to curl backwards and forwards toward the stem in a north/south arrangement when the plant grows in the open sun - hence the alternate common name of Compass Plant although that name more properly belongs to Silphium laciniatum. This north/south leaf tendency of certain plants was suggested by Dr. Asa Gray, (1810-1888 - American botanist), as for the purpose of avoiding the direct rays of the sun in order to check too great a loss of water by transpiration when plants grow in hot sun. Larger leaves are toward the base of the stem. Like the stem, the leaves contain a milky juice.

The floral array is a long conical loosely branched spreading cluster of individual panicles. The panicles contain very small leaves. Each panicle has clusters of flower heads, each head is only 1/2 inch long.

The flowers each have 12 to 20 pale yellow bisexual ray florets, the rays have blunt tips with 5 small teeth. Disc florets are absent. The filaments and anthers of the five stamens of each ray floret are tightly appressed around the single style which has a branched tip. Flower rays absorb moisture and dissipate rapidly (are deliquescent) and thus are open only one day, but the flower buds do not open all at once so the bloom time of a large plant can last about a month. The florets are surrounded by several series of overlapping slender, hairless, blue-green phyllaries. These number 5 to 13+, mostly equal in size, with tips that are erect or slightly reflexed when the head is in fruit.

Seed: Fertile florets produce a dry oblong cypsela (seeds in composite plants that resemble an achene) that has a long beak with tufts of white hair (pappus). The cypsela has 3 to 9 nerve lines on each side - which is a distinguishing characteristic. Dispersion is by the wind.


Habitat: Prickly lettuce is found in fields and disturbed places. It grows from a taproot in a variety of soils that are mesic to dry. It requires full sun. It regenerates from seed.

Names: The genus Lactuca, is Latin for 'milk' referring to the milky juice of the plant. The species, serriola, is also Latin for 'in ranks" referring to the way the leaves line up directionally. The author name for the plant classification, 'L.' refers to Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy. The alternate common name of 'Compass Plant' is explained above. 'Milk Thistle' refers to the milky sap and 'English Thistle' refers to the plant having been introduced to North America supposedly mixed in with good crop seed from England. The 'thistle' part refers to the resemblance of the leaves to thistle leaves.

Comparisons: Similar appearing plants are Wild Lettuce, L. canadensis, and the sow thistles, particularly the Prickly Sow Thistle, Sonchus asper. Wild Lettuce leaves lack the prickles and spiny mid-rib. Prickly Sow Thistle lacks the spiny mid-rib and the yellow flower is much larger.

See bottom of page for notes on the Garden's planting history, distribution in Minnesota and North America, lore and other references.

Prickly Lettuce Plant full plant Prickly lettuce stem

Above 1st photo - The panicles of the floral array fully extended. 2nd photo - a full size plant - click image for larger photo. 3rd photo - Leaf lobes tend to align in a compass direction.

Below: 1st photo - Cypselae are a gray to tan-brown color with 3 to 9 nerve lines on the side with a long beak to which is attached white pappus for wind dispersion. 2nd photo - A seed head with fully developed cypselae.

Seeds Seed head

Below: 1st photo - Leaves have prickly edges (upper surface shown) and prickles along the mid-rib underside (2nd photo). Two angular lobes clasp the stem (photo above and below).

Prickly lettuce leaf Prickly lettuce leaf underside
Prickly lettuce leaf lobe Prickly lettuce flower

Below and Above: Each flower has up to 20 pale yellow ray florets which have blunt tips with 5 small teeth. The involucre (below 1st photo) is of several overlapping slender, hairless, blue-green phyllaries which can have purplish color tinges.

Prickly lettuce bracts Prickly lettuce flower


Notes: Prickly Lettuce is not indigenous to the Garden. It is a fairly recent arrival, the 2009 census being the first to list it. It is believed to have arrived in North America in the late 19th century in Massachusetts. It has since naturalized itself across the continent in all the 48 states and the lower Canadian Provinces. The pathway was its inclusion in other seed mixtures that were not pure to the intended species. (Ref. #6b). There are five species of Wild Lettuce in Minnesota including L. serriola. The other four are native: Biennial (Tall) Blue Lettuce, L. biennis; Canada Wild Lettuce, L. canadensis; Florida Wild Lettuce [rare], L. floridana; and Louisiana Lettuce, L. ludoviciana.

References and site links

References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.

graphicIdentification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.