Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Foraging Sow Thistle- A Versatile Wild Edible

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It's the middle of the best season for foraging where I live. Rain falls and plants grow, greenery is everywhere and most of it near me is edible. I find that I can spend less money in the grocery store since the greenery is so abundant that I use it to replace a lot of the produce in my family's diet.
I amuse myself when I look back at old foraging posts where I talk about how certain plants are my favorite thing to forage because my favorites change all the time depending on season, what's most abundant near me, and what I'm in the mood for.

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A container of chickweed and sow thistle, my current favorite edible weeds
At this time I could say that my current favorite plants to forage are chickweed and sow thistle, but who knows what the plant du jour will be in another week or month. But right now I'm really loving my chickweed and sow thistle, in large part because of how readily available they are to me, growing in thick lush emerald carpets within 100 feet from my front door.
Chickweed has the most mild flavor of all wild edibles, I've found, making it the perfect 'gateway' weed for those that are pickier eaters (I once had a guest who thinks foraged food is too weird to eat but then noshed on an entire bowl of chickweed that was sitting on my counter). But chickweed, while terrific raw, becomes less visually and texturally appealing, becoming stringy when cooked unless chopped up really small or pureed.

When it comes to overall versatility, sow thistle wins hands down. Only the tiniest touch bitter when young (about the same as romaine lettuce) sow thistle works terrifically in salads, and it is also terrific when cooked in a variety of ways. The entire plant is also edible, not just the leaves, but also the stems, and with one snip you can pick a entire plant, all of which can then go on your plate, which makes you get the most bang for your buck, and also is the least amount of work for the most amount of food.

I love foraging sow thistle because I end up spending so much less money on produce because I am able to make so much use of sow thistle in my kitchen, without needing to exert much effort at all.

So, what exactly is sow thistle?

Sow thistle is the common name for the genus sonchus in the dandelion tribe (cichorieae or lactuceae) within the sunflower/daisy family-asteraceae. Everything in the sow thistle family is edible, and I'm pretty sure all the dandelion tribe is edible as well, but this post specifically is focusing on the type of sow thistle known scientifically as sonchus oleraceus, or colloquially as common sow thistle.

Sonchus oleraceus in Latin means hollow (sonchus) cooking vegetable (olraceus). Even its name tells you it is edible!

Since I know most people reading this post are not plant nerds like I am, and may not understand what it means to be in the dandelion tribe, essentially what it means is that they are closely related to dandelions, lettuce, chicory, and salsify, and therefore share a lot of similar characteristics.

Sow thistle grows around the world, in so many different habitats. It is a winter and spring plant here, but in cooler areas you'll find it more in spring, summer, and autumn. I find sow thistle popped up between cracks in sidewalks, on grassy expanses, as weeds in people's yards, in empty lots, in forests... seriously, all over.

Identification of Sow Thistle

The name of the lactuceae comes from the Latin root lact, meaning milk (as in lactate, lactose, galactagogue, etc...) because every plant in this family has a milky sap when you pick it- yes, even lettuce! That is one of the specific characteristics of this family- if you don't see that telltale milky sap, it isn't in this family. The milky sap also has a distinct somewhat bitter smell- if you've ever smelled dandelion sap, sow thistle's sap smells similarly.

Photo credit- Joaquim Alves Gaspar 
Sow thistle's flowers are very similar to dandelion flowers- made up of many tiny yellow petals, in the shape of half a pompom. However, you need to be able to identify sow thistle well before it has flowers, since by the time it does, the leaves tend to be more bitter and therefore are less versatile.

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A young sow thistle plant.
Sow thistle starts off as a rosette, with each leaf lying on the ground and emerging from a central point, but as it matures, the plant grows upward, on a hollow stem, again from that central point instead of just to the side, but you'll only find the hollow stem once it starts growing upward, not when there are just a few leaves along the ground.

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The hollow stem of a sow thistle plant.
The "difficult" thing about sow thistle identification is that the leaves change shape tremendously as the plant matures, but they always have the same basic characteristics- having what I consider to be an arrow shape, and then as they grow bigger they get more and more lobes on each leaf. They start off like a more simple and more rounded arrow, with the points of the lobe pointing towards the center of the rosette.

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A young sow thistle leaf.
As they mature, they get more and more lobes and the leaves become pointier and pointier, again, always with their points towards the center of the rosette.

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A more mature but still young sow thistle leaf.
I took this picture to show the progression of sow thistle leaves, and how there can be many variations of the leaf even along the same plant.

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Here's some of them in various stages of growth, from smallest to largest.

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Note how not only the shape, but also the color of the leaves change as the plant matures. It can start off a very light green but then as it matures it becomes a darker green and then often even becomes purplish, sometimes entire leaves will become purple, sometimes just purple specks, sometimes their ribs are purple, and sometimes it is just their stem that is purple.

Another identifying characteristic of sow thistles is that the end of the leaf beyond the lobes is not rounded, but is flat or curved on the upper/inner side of it. And the leaves will not lie flat, no matter how much you try.

See how it looks from the side?
It is completely 3 dimensional, not flat and sort of 2D like many leaves.

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Sow thistle has no poisonous look-alikes. I would say it has two main look alikes- either it's close relative, the dandelion, but the difference is that dandelion's leaves all grow flat along the ground, and only have one flower per plant while sow thistle may have a cluster of flowers at the end of the stems. But even if you confuse the two, it's not a big deal, as dandelion is edible and has similar uses.

The other look-alike is probably wild mustard, but their flowers are very different- wild mustard's flowers have only 4 yellow petals instead of hundreds. Wild mustard's lobes are completely rounded, not pointed like those of sow thistle. And they don't have white sap. But even if you did confuse them (you won't, because of these easy to tell signs), that is fine, as they are used the same in the kitchen.

Nutritional and Medicinal Aspects of Sow Thistle

Sow thistle leaves are a good source of vitamins A and C, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, calcium, phosphorus, and iron.
In traditional medicine it is used to treat diarrhea, menstrual problems, fever, inflammation, and warts. It encourages menstruation, and iis used as a cathartic, a sedative, a cancer treatment, a vermicide and an aid for toothaches, as purgative, a diuretic, and an emollient.

But enough of that- now what everyone wants to know- how to use it in the kitchen!

Culinary Uses of Sow Thistle

My favorite use for sow thistle, as I said above, is in salads, when young. When the plant is small, the bitterness in the leaf is barely noticeable, and when you pair it with something even more mild like chickweed, it is even better, but not necessary.

As the plant gets older, it will become more bitter, and then if you want to use it in salads, unless you're a big fan of bitter, you'll either need to balance out the bitter by using it along with other mild greens, and/or use sweet ingredients in the salad, like sweet potatoes or a sweet salad dressing.

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When cooked, sow thistle is super versatile. I sometimes jokingly call it wild spinach, and use it in any recipe where you would use cooked spinach. However, the bitterness in sow thistle intensifies when cooked, so I typically boil the sow thistle for about 2 minutes and then squeeze out the water before using it in my recipes. If you don't mind a little bitter, you can also just pour boiling water on it and let it sit for a few minutes, but then not squeeze it out.
The more liquids you squeeze out, the more nutrients you are putting in the water, so I sometimes like to drink the bitter water with a drop of lemon- it makes it more palatable and it is very nutritious.

Once you've "debittered" your sow thistle, here's a list of ways I've used it successfully. (Depending on the recipe, you may want to chop it up or stick in in the food processor first.)

  • Mock spinach dip
  • Lasagna
  • In tomato sauce
  • Minestrone soup
  • Ravioli filling
  • Quiche
  • Spanikopita
  • Gnocchi
  • Pureed up in meatballs
  • Pesto
  • Creamed
  • Greens and cheese patties
  • Hearty peasant soup
  • Sauted with onions and garlic and topped with lemon juice
  • African style with peanut butter and/or nut butters and tomatoes, African style
  • Bakso (Indonesian meatball soup)
  • Palak paneer (curried greens with cheese)
  • Bibimbap (Korean rice bowl)
  • Various other curries
  • Thrown into fried rice
  • Topped with terriyaki sauce and sesame seeds

I think I've made my point about just how versatile sow thistle is!

And that is just the leaves!

Some people make sow thistle buds into mock capers, but for me, that's a waste, since we get the real deal here and I pickle actual capers, and you need a lot of sow thistle buds and there aren't many on each plant, so you have a ton of work for very little yield. 

You can also pick the flowers and use them in salads, cooked dishes, etc... basically any way you'd use dandelion flowers but I'll admit that I never bothered, again, because there aren't many flowers on each plant. 

Roots also can be roasted and used for tea/as a coffee substitute, but same with that- too much work for too little yeild, and I don't particularly want to be drinking a bitter coffee sub- if I drink coffee it's because I want the caffeine, not the bitter taste.

So, what are you waiting for- go out and pick some sow thistle!

Have you ever heard of sow thistle before? Ever eaten it? What was your favorite way to make it?
Does this plant look familiar? Have you seen it growing near you? Do you think, with this description, you'd feel confident enough to be able to be sure of its identity and feel comfortable enough to pick it and eat it? 


  1. I believe most plants that keep popping up are for us to eat..living in England n Irelandhave there own to nurish the species of humans we are...other countries food that grow naturally are for others species of people.. Never tried thistle but have nettels. Love sorril..we must eat the fruits of our lands..

  2. Interesting! http://www.rebeccakrusee.com

  3. We have begun foraging around our neighborhood. We have gotten mallow, goosefoot, and some other green that I am not exactly sure what it is except that it is arugula-ish and definitely edible :-)

  4. Very well done. I am thankful for this post.

  5. I'm not sure where you are or how widespread it is but here in Texas at least Common Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris) is a poisonous lookalike of sow thistle.

  6. Do you know how to harvest the sap? What are its uses?


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