Sow Thistle

Scientific name: Sonchus oleraceus
Abundance: plentiful
What: leaves, stems, roots
How: Young leaves in salads, steamed or boiled; stems can be peeled then steamed like asparagus; roots are very bitter and generally considered to be edible in dire circumstances after roasting or boiling; coffee can be made from roasted roots.
Where: yards, fields, disturbed areas, sunny
When: Early spring through fall
Nutritional Value: Rich in vitamins A,Bs,C and some minerals
Dangers: Don't mistake poisonous Common Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris) or Texas Groundsel (Senecio ampullaceus) for Sow Thistle.

Medicinal Summary:

Leaves - antidepressant; antioxidant; antimicrobial; soothes urinary tract inflammations including from kidney stones; sedative; fever reducer; anti-inflammatory; pain reliever (tisane)

Leaf Arrangement: Leaves of young plants form a basal rosette and then leaves are alternating up the stem once it appears. 

Leaf Shape: Variable, typically runcinate or lyrate-pinnatifid; deeply lobed with rounded lobe margins, resembling a dandelion leaf. Basal leaves can be broadly obovate (egg-shaped with the wider end toward the tip) and up to 8 inches long and 4 inches wide. Stem leaves smaller and less deeply lobed. Stem leave may wrap around the stem.

Leaf Venation: Pinnate; veins branch off a central midvein in each lobe, reaching the lobe margin without further branching.

Leaf Margin: Leaf edges are sharply serrate. 

Leaf Color: Bright green, often with a paler underside. Younger leaves may have some purple tints.

Flower Structure: Flower heads with numerous strap-shaped ray florets around the outside and tubular disc florets in the center. Flower heads are approximately 1" across and arranged in clusters at the ends of stems and at leaf-stem junctions.

Flower Color: Bright yellow; ray florets sometimes slightly more vibrant than disc florets.

Fruit: Dry, flattened achenes with a pappus of white bristles, aiding wind dispersal. Each achene contains a single seed. Achenes approximately 1/8 inch long and 1/16 inch wide.

Seed: Single seed per achene, small and brown, about 1/16 inch long.

Stem: Erect, smooth, and hollow, producing white sap when cut/damaged. 

Hairs: Absent; no hairs present on any plant parts.

Height: 6-36 inches.

Sow thistle.

Closeup of leaves wrapped around stem.

Young sow thistle plant.

Slightly older sow thistle.

Sow thistle flowers.
Photo courtesy of Wildcat

Sow thistle flowers (never opened, opened, and gone to seed).
Sow Thistle

Young sow thistle flower buds. Pickle the ones that haven't opened by soaking them in leftover pickle juice for at least six weeks in the refrigerator. Buds that are still flat or slightly dipped inwards are the ones you want such as those directly above the ruler. Buds that come to a point have already opened and aren't worth eating.

Texas distribution, attributed to U. S. Department of Agriculture. The marked counties are guidelines only. Plants may appear in other counties, especially if used in landscaping.

North American distribution, attributed to U. S. Department of Agriculture.

This weed can be found everywhere and is very rich in vitamins and other nutrients. The plant body looks a lot like bull thistle but sow thistle has a number of small, yellow flowers rather than one bulbous purple or tan flower. Also unlike bull thistle stem fibers, sow thistle fibers make poor cordage.

My favorite way to eat sow thistle is to pick and steam the young plants before they've produced any flower buds. The steamed stalk/leaves go great with steamed carrots.

Another great treat is pickled sow thistle buds. Simply pick flower buds before they have ever opened and drop them in leftover pickle juice. Let them soak for six weeks and they become a wonderful nibble, very similar to pickled capers.

To make coffee from sow thistle roots roast the roots in a 400F oven until they turn dark brown. The dark brown the darker the resultant coffee. Grind the browned roots in a coffee grinder and then use the results as you would regular coffee grounds to make a caffeine-free coffee.

Don't mistake poisonous Common Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris) for Sow Thistle. Both their flowers look very similar but Groundsel leaves are blunt and fuzzy whereas Sow Thistle leaves are spiky and hairless. Also, a closer look at the flowers reveals black tips at the ends of the calyx (the collar around the base of the flowers).

Common Groundsel (poisonous).

Close-up of Common Groundsel flowers (poisonous). Note the black triangles at the bases of the flowers.

Texas Groundsel (Senecio ampullaceus) also has flower buds shaped like Sow Thistle but it's buds are yellow and its ray petals are fewer in number but wider than Sow Thistle's.
Texas Groundsel

Texas Groundsel leaves wrap around the stem in the same manner as Sow Thistle but its leaves are fuzzy and covered in fine threads, seeming like spider webs.
Texas Groundsel

Edible Dandelion Mimics:
Cat's Ear
Japanese Hawkweed
Sow Thistle
Texas Dandelion
Wild Lettuce

Buy my book! Outdoor Adventure Guides Foraging covers 70 of North America's tastiest and easy to find wild edibles shown with the same big pictures as here on the Foraging Texas website.

Privacy & Amazon Paid Promotion Statement

I use third-party advertising companies to serve ads when you visit this website. These companies may use information (not including your name, address, email address, or telephone number) about your visits to this and other websites in order to provide advertisements about goods and services of interest to you. If you would like more information about this practice and to know your choices about not having this information used by these companies, click here.

I participate in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for me to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites. The prices you pay for the item isn't affected, my sales commission comes out of Amazon's pocket.

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.