Sow thistle’s origins lie in Western Asia and Europe. From its home continents, it would eventually make its way all over the world. The common name comes from the fact that pigs are attracted to it. Nicknames for it include hare thistle and hare lettuce because one popular way to use it is as rabbit food.
There are several closely related sow thistles with the most common being Sonchus oleraceus. Sonchus arvensis and Sonchus asper look similar to Sonchus oleraceus and are often confused with it. The name Sonchus comes from Ancient Greek meaning hollow and refers to the sow thistle’s hollow stem.
Sow thistle was consumed as a salad green in Ancient Greece. The Ancient Greeks believed it to be a particularly nutritious green. According to Pliny, Theseus ate a bowl of sow thistles before his encounter with the bull of Marathon.
It most likely made its way to the United States via contaminated seed and was first noticed in Pennsylvania in 1814. At this point in history, new plants were being introduced to the continent and spread via the railroads as well as by contaminated hay and even packing materials. These days, you can find sow thistle all over the North American continent and it is considered an invasive species; however, it is not as common in Southern and Central states.
Sow thistle would also make its way to New Zealand where the Maori people would use it for food and medicine. The Maori refer to it as rareke or puka. In the 18th century, Captain Cook’s men found it while foraging at Queen Charlotte Sound and ate it.
Sow thistle would make its way to Hawaii as well. Native Hawaiians use it as a medicinal herb. It is administered both internally and topically in traditional Hawaiian medicine.
Sow thistle flavor profile
Sow thistle tastes similar to dandelion but without as much bitterness; the young leaves are often as mild as lettuce. As with other leafy greens, the older leaves tend to be more bitter than the younger ones. Cooked sow thistle has a taste similar to that of chard.
Health benefits of sow thistle
Sow thistle is a good source of multiple nutrients including:
- Vitamins: Sow thistle is high in vitamins A and C as well as various B vitamins including thiamine and riboflavin.
- Antioxidants: Sow thistle is a good source of various antioxidants, including luteolin and apigenin.
- Minerals: You can get iron, calcium, and phosphorus from sow thistle.
The nutrients above and other properties of the sow thistle plant make it useful for treating or preventing:
- Cancer: Sow thistle is believed to have powerful cancer-fighting activity.
- Opium addiction: Sow thistle can help with those trying to break a dependence on opium.
You can use sow thistle leaves just as you would use dandelion leaves. Use sow thistle to make a salad more flavorful or stir fry it to make its leaves and stems more tender. The longer you cook sow thistle leaves, the less bitter they become; however, you should still opt for a reduced cooking time to ensure that you do not overcook them. The stems can be peeled and cooked like asparagus. As with chicory and dandelion, the sow thistle roots can be roasted and ground to make a coffee alternative. The traditional Maori way to prepare sow thistle is to steam it. They also use its white latex-like sap as chewing gum.