Found almost everywhere, this dandelion look-alike is equally as versatile.
Name: SOW THISTLE (Sonchus oleraceus and other species)
Sunflower family (Asteraceae)
Sow thistle is commonly mistaken for dandelion, to which it is related. Sow thistle is an annual weed with a more or less erect stem that grows from 1 to 4 feet tall.
The young plant forms a rosette of large, pinnately divided leaves, which are characterized by their almost-triangular terminal lobe. The young sow thistle is distinguished from dandelion by its tender, bluish-green leaves. The lower leaves on the mature plant are glaucous (dull, grayish-green or blue) and pinnately divided. The upper leaves of the mature plant are more or less entire, and they clasp the stem. When a leaf is torn or the stem is cut, a white sap oozes out.
The yellow flower heads are clustered at the top of the plant. The flower heads closely resemble those of dandelion flowers, except that the base of each sow thistle flower is somewhat swollen. Each flower head of sow thistle, like a dandelion head, is made up entirely of ray flowers.
This European native has now naturalized throughout much of the world. It’s found mostly in urban environments—in virtually all gardens, vacant lots, untended lawns, parks and even in sidewalk cracks. In wilderness areas, it’s found mainly along streams in sandy soil and occasionally in moist fields and meadows.
Raw sow thistle leaves are only slightly bitter and have a crisp texture. They’re great used in salads, either alone or mixed with other greens. The cooked young leaves make a mild dish similar to spinach that’s popularly enjoyed worldwide. Pinch off just the leaves—preferably the large lower ones—for cooking. The upper leaves are also acceptable but tend to have some bitterness and might require longer boiling, depending on your taste.
The stout stems of the newly flowering plant are tasty when eaten raw. They first need to be peeled of their thin (and slightly bitter) outer layer, which is usually tinged with red. The peeled stems are good in salads and can be steamed or added to soups.
The tender, fresh leaves can also be used in soups, stir-fries and omelets. The leaves are mild and very versatile and even “finicky” eaters will enjoy it. The root, while still young and tender, can be boiled and eaten (somewhat like a parsnip). The roots, like the dandelion root, can also be used for a coffee substitute, although the result is inferior to dandelion root coffee.
Sow thistle roots need to be dug, washed, dried and then roasted until they’re dark brown. Then, they’re ground and percolated into coffee.
Pick the fresh leaves, rinse, dice or mince them, and add to salads or soups. The root requires a bit more work to scrub off the dirt; otherwise, it can simply be boiled or dried and made into a coffee substitute.
ADVICE FOR GROWING
Sow thistle most likely already grows in your yard or fields. However, scatter the seeds in late winter in disturbed garden soil that gets full or partial sun.
WHEN TO HARVEST/AVAILABILITY
Sow thistle is an annual. The leaves and roots are best gathered in the spring before the plant has flowered.
According to the USDA, 100 grams of raw sow thistle leaf contains 33 calories, 2.2 grams of protein, 131 mg of calcium, 60 mg of phosphorus, 2.85 mg of iron, 144 mg of sodium, 481 mg of potassium, 2,185 I.U. of vitamin A, 23.9 mg of vitamin C, 59.2 grams of Omega-3 fatty acids and trace amounts of beta carotene.
Sow Thistle Deluxe
2 cups diced sow thistle greens
1 cup cooked rice
½ diced onion
¼ cup chopped walnuts
Boil the sow thistle with the onion. When done, strain the water. Blend in the cooked rice. Top with chopped walnuts and butter. Serves 2.
Sow Thistle Camper
2 cups chopped sow thistle greens and tender stems
Butter (to taste)
Sauté the onions until tender. Add the sow thistle and cook for two minutes. Add butter and serve.
12 tender sow thistle stems with the leaves removed
Butter or cheese
Boil the stems for a minute and strain. Top with butter or cheese and serve.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the June, 2021 print issue of American Survival Guide.
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