Sowthistle – A Foraging Guide to its Food, Medicine and Other Uses

The hollow stem yields a white, milky juice said to be eaten by sows to increase the flow of their milk. The Latin name of the genus ‘sowthistle’ is Sonchus meaning ‘hollow’.

There are many species of Sonchus (Sonchus spp.) – all are edible and most are indistinguishable in appearance – but the two most commonly used for food and medicine are smooth sowthistle (S. oleraceus) and prickly sowthistle (S. asper).

Sowthistles are sometimes confused with dandelions, because of the appearance of their bright yellow flowers and green spiny leaves.

The plant has a complicated relationship with humans. It has flourished in the path of human progress to become a common weed and wild edible. Along the way, some people have become devoted to its tender young leaves and juicy stem, while others have found its bitterness less agreeable.

Common Name

Smooth Sowthistle and Prickly Sowthistle.

Scientific Name

Smooth Sowthistle: Sonchus oleraceus.
Prickly Sowthistle: Sonchus asper.

Family

Compositae.

Botanical Description

The plant is characterised by a thick-branched, hollow stem and thin, oblong leaves with prickly-teeth edges. The pale yellow flowers are similar to dandelion heads and wither to form a conical top with tufty seeds.

Status

Annual, native to Britain, Ireland, Europe, Asia and North Africa.

Habitat

Prefers roadsides, wastegrounds, river banks and sea shores.

Parts Used For Food

Leaves, stem and flowers.

Harvest Time

Spring to Autumn.

Food Uses of Sowthistle

It has been used as a salad and potherb since the days of our early ancestors. The younger plants are mildly bitter and quite succulent; older plants are bitter and tough.

The leaves and stems of both species can be cooked like vegetables, added to stir fries and stews. The juicy stem should be milked before cooking because the juice can turn parts of the plant brown.

Nutritional Profile of Sowthistle

Sow-thistle has four times more antioxidant compounds than red wine and twelve times more antioxidants than black tea. It is rich in essential fatty acids and minerals and nutrients like zinc, manganese, copper, iron, calcium and fibre.

Its traditional use as an ingredient in spring dishes eaten for health and vitality is supported by its high content of vitamins A, B, C and K.

Per 100g fresh weight of various sowthistles contain between 30–60mg of vitamin C; smooth sow thistle has been shown to contain up to 800mg of vitamin A.

Sowthistle Recipes

Herbal Medicine Uses of Sowthistle

The medicinal virtues of smooth sowthistle (S. oleraceus) were believed to be similar to dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). Its juicy stem oozes a creamy milk like dandelion, which was used as a cure for warts.

Sowthistle was also used as a herbal remedy to hasten childbirth, to treat skin and eye problems, and to freshen foul breath.

Other Uses

The fluffy seeds were once used to stuff pillows and mattresses.

Safety Note

Smooth sowthistle is said to be more toxic than other species of sowthistle; a white latex produced from the plant is mildly poisonous to lambs and horses, and the roots are said to induce abortion.

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Identification – Smooth Sowthistle

Sonchus oleraceus
Sonchus oleraceus
Sonchus oleraceus

Identification – Prickly Sowthistle

Sonchus asper
Sonchus asper
Sonchus asper
Sonchus asper

References

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  1. N. America isn’t listed as a sowthistle habitat but I notice a reference to Harriet Kuhnlein’s book, so I’m wondering…..

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