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Sow thistles - A nutritious edible weed

Updated on October 6, 2014
Photo taken in my yard
Photo taken in my yard | Source

Sow thistle (part of "Edible weeds in Los Angeles")

Information, recipes, and fun facts about one of my favorite weeds, the sow thistle.

Sow thistle is one of the most plentiful wild plants you'll see in the Los Angeles area. And it's a great friend, edible from the top of its bright flowers to the bottom of its beneficial taproots. So let's take some time to get better acquainted with the sow thistle.

Photographed on a sidewalk in Carson.
Photographed on a sidewalk in Carson. | Source

Getting acquainted with sow thistle

Sow thistle - Sonchus oleraceus

The binomial name for sow thistle is Sonchus oleraceus. Sonchus comes from Greek and means "hollow", a reference to its hollow stem. Oleraceus comes from Latin and means "kitchen vegetable" or "herb used in cooking". You can't get more edible than that!

It acquired the English name "sow thistle" because it was a popular food for livestock.

Sow thistle was introduced to the Americas by European settlers who brought it over as a garden vegetable.

The bright and beautiful flower of the sow thistle.  (Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Tony Wills)
The bright and beautiful flower of the sow thistle. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Tony Wills)
Baby sow thistle leaves (photographed in a yard in Lynwood).
Baby sow thistle leaves (photographed in a yard in Lynwood). | Source

Identifying sow thistle

The most obvious feature of the sow thistle is its beautiful bright yellow flower, similar to its close relative, the dandelion.

The leaves of the sow thistle are oval-shaped and rather smooth when the plant first sprouts.

Mature sow thistle leaves (Wikimedia Commons: Rob Hille).
Mature sow thistle leaves (Wikimedia Commons: Rob Hille).

As the plant matures, the leaves become more "toothed" in appearance.

Old sow thistle leaves (photographed in a yard in Carson).
Old sow thistle leaves (photographed in a yard in Carson). | Source

When the leaves get older, they get more tough and often get a purplish tinge to them.

This picture is actually Sonchus arvensis, but S. oleraceus has the same kind of stem. (Wikimedia Commons: Anneli Salo)
This picture is actually Sonchus arvensis, but S. oleraceus has the same kind of stem. (Wikimedia Commons: Anneli Salo)

Sow thistle has a hollow stem. Both the stem and the leaves exude a sticky white sap when broken.

Learning to recognize sow thistle leaves on their own is helpful in foraging because the leaves are tastiest when they're picked before the plant flowers.

Notice how the sow thistle has many flower buds sprouting from one stalk.
Notice how the sow thistle has many flower buds sprouting from one stalk. | Source

How is sow thistle different from dandelion?

Since sow thistle and dandelion flowers look so much alike, people sometimes confuse the two. Here are the most prominent differences:

  • Sow thistle usually has many flowers sprouting out on each stalk. Dandelion only has one flower per stalk (see photos on the dandelion page).
  • On the sow thistle, leaves are seen going all the way up the stalk, as well as at the base of the plant. Dandelion leaves are only at the base.
  • I also find that sow thistles spring up in drier soils that dandelions won't tolerate. My neighbors who water their yards more often get more dandelions. I get more sow thistles.
  • Sow thistle and dandelion remind me of the cousin characters from the Patty Duke Show. Dandelions are like Cathy, the graceful and glamorous one. Sow thistles are like the more rough-and-tumble Patty. But both are beautiful in their own way.

Foraging video about sow thistle

This is from the "Eat the Weeds" series with Green Deane. Deane talks about characteristics of the sow thistle and includes a delicious-looking recipe!

Nutritional info about sow thistles

Sow thistle leaves are said to be a good source of vitamins A and C, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, calcium, phosphorus, and iron.

Photographed on a sidewalk in Carson.
Photographed on a sidewalk in Carson. | Source

Eating sow thistle

Young sow thistle leaves are wonderful in salad, adding substance and depth to the flavor of other greens. They have a slight bitter edge (just like some lettuces do), but they're less bitter than dandelion leaves.

The flowers are also delicious in salads.

Older leaves have a more noticeably bitter taste if they are eaten raw, but cooking gets rid of the bitterness. I often put old sow thistle leaves in soups.

A treasured part of Italian (specifically Ligurian) cuisine is preboggion, which is a mixture of several wild greens, including sow thistle.

Here's a sampling of other recipes from the internet:

The roots of sow thistle and dandelion can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute.

Cookbooks that include recipes with sow thistle

Après Moi, Le Dessert: A French Eighteenth Century Model Meal
Après Moi, Le Dessert: A French Eighteenth Century Model Meal
Has a recipe for the STALKS of the sow thistle, which are soaked, boiled, then buttered.

Sow thistles in mythology

According to Plant lore, legends, and lyrics by Richard Folkard, Theseus, the king of Athens was said to have received sow thistle as a gift from the goddess Hecate.

In the writings of Pliny the Elder of Rome, the Greek hero Theseus ate sow thistles before encountering the bull of Marathon.

In Italian stories, the phrase "Open Sow-Thistle" was used for the same purpose as the words "Open Sesame".

Sow thistle as a medicinal herb

Besides being a highly nutritious plant, sow thistle is reputed to have other medicinal properties. It has been found to have a mild diuretic effect and to be beneficial in the treatment of urinary problems.

Infusion of sow thistle can be reportedly be used as an emmenagogue.

The white sap from the stem is thought to be healing to the skin. It is also reported to have a mild opiate-like effect and has been used as a pain reliever in some cultures.

And a commenter to this page has found sow thistle to relieve gout!

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    • Anita Hasch profile image

      Anita Hasch 

      19 months ago from Port Elizabeth

      Thanks for all the info. I love your image of the sow thistle growing against the base of the tree. Lovely contrasting colours. I make a tea from the stinging nettle plant. It is tasteless but contains many vitamins.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Thanks for this, very helpful! I eat heaps of sow thistle blossoms on top of my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches -- delicious!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Thank You so much I found this veryy very helpful <3

      Blessed Bee

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Thanks for posting all of this great information. These are abundant in my backyard so I am off to go collect some.

    • paperfacets profile image

      Sherry Venegas 

      7 years ago from La Verne, CA

      This year the last rain produced a bloom of weeds on our slope. What I thought was dandelion is sow-thistle. We are going to have some with our cabbage in the fish tacos, tonight. Well, I am. I going to try some cooked too. There was a huge patch of tender new leaves.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Great info! I'm working on a nature journal right now, so thanks!

    • mihgasper profile image

      Miha Gasper 

      8 years ago from Ljubljana, Slovenia, EU

      We don't appreciate what nature gives us. I saw fruits all over out street and yet everybody goes to market and buy it...

      Great lens!

    • joanhall profile imageAUTHOR

      Joan Hall 

      8 years ago from Los Angeles

      @anonymous: If you mean the photo at the very top of the page, you can tell that it's not a dandelion because there are leaves going all the way up the stalk. Dandelions have leaves at the base of the stalk only.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      that first photo is a dandelion, not a sow-thistle.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Thank you so much for this info. I will love my weeds from now on....

    • Rosaquid profile image


      8 years ago

      Fascinating! Thanks!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I pick and dry my sow thistle in the budding stage... lots here in Canada.. every road allowance.! I use to have trouble with gout.. but no more... as long as I remember to daily sip my sow thistle tea...

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Awesome detail! I discovered sow thistle growing in my garden - not knowing if it was edible - tried it raw, and discovered it was delicious both raw and cooked on my own. You have given me a graduate seminar on it, which I appreciate.

    • RawBill1 profile image


      8 years ago from Gold Coast, Australia

      Sow Thistle is known also as Milk Thistle here is Australia due to its white sap inside the stem. It is one of the most common weeds found throughout Australia, not so much where I live now in the wetter sub tropics, but in the colder drier south that I grew up in, I remember it being everywhere a s a child.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Now I know I've seen this many times and wondered if it was a super dandelion, now I know! You'll get us all eating our weeds and using natural medicine!

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Good job. Thanks for the video, it inspires more confidence in trying these new greens.

    • Kylyssa profile image

      Kylyssa Shay 

      10 years ago from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

      I am reading through your edible plants series and I find it fascinating. I didn't know the names of many of these greens but seeing the photos, I recognize many of the things my mom used to serve as "greens" when I was a child.

    • PNWtravels profile image

      Vicki Green 

      10 years ago from Wandering the Pacific Northwest USA

      I always find learning about common edible plants fascinating. Great lens!

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      I've never heard of this before, but it sounds interesting. I think I'd pass on weed eating, since I'm not an expert (and would probably eat something really bad!). A couple of times I've had edible flowers as part of salads. Zucchini flowers are another great tasting flower. Thanks for the info!

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      This is the best lens I have seen. Very informative, nicely formatted, and wonderful photos!

    • religions7 profile image


      11 years ago

      That video really makes the lens. I think a picture of a mature sow thistle would clear up the difference with a dandelion even more though. great lens.

    • AlishaV profile image

      Alisha Vargas 

      11 years ago from Reno, Nevada

      I've always been confused over the difference between sow thistle and dandelions. Thanks for clearing that up!

    • joanhall profile imageAUTHOR

      Joan Hall 

      11 years ago from Los Angeles

      [in reply to BarbRad] Yes, it is indeed related to prickly lettuce (Lactuca serriola, which is also edible). Prickly lettuce leaves have pointy little spines on the undersides of the leaves, and the flowers are smaller and -- at least out here -- paler than the dandelion/sow thistle flowers.

    • BarbRad profile image

      Barbara Radisavljevic 

      11 years ago from Templeton, CA

      Thanks for the helpful ID info. Isn't this also related to Prickly lettuce? I seem to get it mixed up with that. This is a very helpful lens, since we have the dry soil here. To think I just pulled a lot of these out of my herb garden today. But I don't think I got them all. Maybe i will let the rest grow and try eating them.

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      Gosh, I have to run and see what I have in my yard, too. ...Well, with my new-found knowledge, I have spied some dandelions! I do recall some multi-flowered versions somewhere, so I know they are around. Will be on the lookout! Truly wonderful lens, Joan!

    • Sylvestermouse profile image

      Cynthia Sylvestermouse 

      11 years ago from United States

      I just thought they were dandelions! I think I will run to my back yard now and see which one I really have:)

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      Great work, Joan! You certainly are awakening me to the edible weeds.

    • jptanabe profile image

      Jennifer P Tanabe 

      11 years ago from Red Hook, NY

      Fascinating! Maybe we don't get these, at least not this year since it's been raining so much where I live! I guess they're called sow thistles because they resemble thistles, which I'm used to from Scotland, just a different color.


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