Sow Thistle: A Tasty Wild Green

I was talking on my cell phone, walking down the street, when I happened to pass this plant that I recognized: It’s sow thistle, Sonchus oleraceas. Sow thistle has bright yellow flowers and toothed, hairless leaves that resemble dandelion, Taraxacum officinale. But sow thistle grows much taller than dandelion — Sonchus can reach a height of several feet — and its leaves wrap around and clasp the stem. (By contrast, dandelion has just a basal rosette of toothed leaves and one flower per stem.)

When I plucked and tasted a leaf of the sow thistle, I was glad to find that it was really quite good. And it’s not just-good-for-wild-greens good; it’s actually good. In fact, the Latin “oleraceas” means kitchen vegetable.

The flavor reminds me of a cross between Lamb’s Quarters, a.k.a. wild spinach, as it has the same kind of richness, and dandelion, because it has a slight bitter kick to it. I liked it raw, and I think it’d be really good in a salad. In his wild food cookbook, Steve Brill recommends stir frying it in garlic and rosemary as well.

Nutritionally, sow thistle has a lot to offer: It’s high in protein, essential fatty acids, iron and other minerals, making it an especially useful find for someone on a vegan or dairy-free vegetarian diet. It also has a lot of Vitamin C.

This species is spineless and hairless, but there are other common kinds of sow thistle that do have prickly parts, such as Sonchus asper and Sonchus arvensis.

Close-up of latex

LOOKALIKES

Before it flowers, this plant could be confused with the following plants:

* Wall lettuce, Mycelis muralis, which has a distinctively different yellow flower with only five petals, and is also edible though bitter.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lactuca_muralis

* Nipplewort, Lapsana spp., which has similar flowers but a shorter, finer stalk with non-clasping leaves. Edible though bitter.http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7d/48_Lapsana_communis.jpg

* TOXIC Trail Plant aka Pathfinder, Adenocaulon bicolor. Pathfinder has markedly lighter coloration on the underside of its leaves and its flowers are tiny and white. POISONOUS, not edible. http://plants.usda.gov/java/largeImage?imageID=adbi_006_ahp.jpg

* Wild lettuce, Lactuca sp., has similar yellow flowers and toothed leaves, and if you cut the stem open, you’ll see it also has white latex inside, but wild lettuce species contain a line of hairs or spines on the underside of the leaves (prickly lettuce, Lactuca serriola, has sharp ones) whereas sow thistles do not.

A final dose of plant trivia: As you might have guessed, the common name “sow thistle” is a reference to the plant’s popularity among farm animals, particularly the piggies.

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11 thoughts on “Sow Thistle: A Tasty Wild Green

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  4. Hello Miss Rebecca, its been a while since i have posted anythang here. I was livining in the city but im back in the BAYOU …. and i have missed it life is so much simpler here catchin fish and snakes ….an turtles . Yes i know sow thistle well its excellent green. I just saw a tall sow thistle in the woods near my home 2 day ago . I have been using yucca plants lately to make cordage mostly but the flowers are ok eating if you can find enough of dem . Im back in the bayou for good an Artist cant stay away from his home for long hope to send you some photos of the plants down this way soon as i get out the boat and do some travlin on the bayou . The weather has been so hot 90`s here . well yall take care i will be talkin to yall soon ….:)

  5. Rebecca,
    Your right about lactuca serriola it can be bitter. I do like it when it is very very young though. I do have a lot of spiny sow thistle ( sonchus asper) in my area. I;ve ripped the leaves in half last year to sample (and love the taste). Still, the spiny nature of that one had me reconsider (though I’ve heard some say they have used a blender on it and made it into a dip). The one I can’t find (which truly amazes me as to why not) is miners lettuce. I have a forrested area down the street so I can find Siberian miners lettuce (claytonia siberica) but not traditional miners lettuce (claytonia perfoliatta, did I spell that right). In any case thanks for the blog entry. Oh, and do you have any recommendations on a medicianal plant book? I would very much appreciate it.

    Thank You,
    Marc

  6. I didn’t know that it was edible! But most often it doesn’t look as pristine as your specimen. It’s usually covered in mold and aphids!

  7. Kiwis call it puha and it has strong tradition in New Zealand, mostly among Maori but also some Pakeha (whites). It’s a traditional vegetable there rather than a weed, so worth checking up on their uses.
    Great post, thanks,
    Oliver

  8. Thanks for another great post.

    Around here the leaves of Sonchus Asper or spiny sow thistle are fairly bitter but still good. My favorite part however is the peeled stalks when they are still quite young.

    Arthur Haines says that sow thistles have important antioxidants for fighting some kinds of pollutants in our bodies.

    Nate

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