Sow thistles - A nutritious edible weed
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.
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.
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.
As the plant matures, the leaves become more "toothed" in appearance.
When the leaves get older, they get more tough and often get a purplish tinge to them.
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.
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.
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:
- Stir-fried sow thistle and pork (this one is a .pdf file)
The roots of sow thistle and dandelion can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute.
Cookbooks that include recipes with sow thistle
Sow thistles in mythology
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!