Sow Thistle (Sonchus asper/oleraceus)
Sow Thistle is one of the first urban plants I remember examining as a small child. This was perhaps because it was at my eye level at the time, or it may just have been because the herb is so prolific it is difficult to avoid. It sprouts from every available crack and apart from its lower spikier leaves you could be forgiven for thinking it was a tall mutant dandelion. The flowers do have more than a passing resemblance to Dandelion, which is a relative; but the pointy leaves and long thick stalk mark it out as a Sow Thistle.
As the name suggests the herb is a favourite of pigs as well as hares, goats and sheep along with a number of other animals; with the exception of horses who apparently loathe it. The ancient Greeks believed the herb to be very wholesome and strengthening. Modern research has proved them right as it has been found to be highly nutritious containing large doses of vitamin c, calcium and iron.
The plant is edible but sources suggest the older prickly leaves are very bitter and probably best left alone. However the young, lettuce-like leaves are said to be fresh and juicy, ideal for a summer salad or steamed in butter with a pinch of nutmeg and a squeeze of lemon. Even the roots can be roasted and the peeled stalks are equally palatable with a nutty if mildly bitter flavour, they can be eaten raw or cooked. However ingesting the milky goo from the stalk should be strictly avoided as it is a powerful purgative - a moment on the lips an afternoon in the bathroom…
The latex substance which oozes from the broken stem was once thought to show the plants ability to produce milk, consequently in Folk medicine Sow Thistle (hopefully minus the purgative sap) was given to nursing mothers, human or porcine, to increase their milk. The herb is thought to have very similar medicinal properties to dandelion, for instance the stalk sap of both plants was an old remedy for pimples and warts. Sow Thistle ‘milk’ was also a country cure for sunburn being both cooling and astringent. Other folk remedies included an infusion of the flowers to sooth sore eyes and, perhaps as a kind of sympathetic magic, the plant was used to heal wounds caused by a wild boar. In Chinese medicine the sap is used to treat opium and narcotic addictions whilst this seemingly multipurpose milky gum is now being trialled as an anti-cancer treatment.
In more old Herbal medicine Sow Thistle was a treatment for kidney and liver complaints and as a diuretic it would certainly have been helpful for such ailments. Like Dandelion, Sow Thistle was believed to clear obstructions from internal organs, such as the gallbladder, pancreas and liver, and to eliminate toxins from the blood. It was also a cure for gout as it removes uric acid from the system. The cooling juice was used on a wide range or swellings or itchy, inflamed skin conditions, as well as piles. The leaves were believed to have a binding action and were therefore a traditional remedy for diarrhoea.
The Herbalist Nicholas Culpepper writing in the 1650’s rated Sow Thistle highly, even considering it a cure for deafness…
‘the juice boiled or thoroughly heated in a little oil of bitter almonds in the peel of a pomegranite and dropped into the ears is a sure remedy for deafness’
Don’t try this at home folks….
The plant juice was once thought equally beneficial as a facial wash for ladies, able to clear blemishes and restore lustre to the complexion. It was a herb known for regulating the menstrual cycle and in ancient medicine was sometimes used in combination with other herbs as an emmenagogue. An infusion of the leaves and roots was also considered a general health tonic. These days Sow Thistle is largely ignored by the Herbal profession but I must confess my research has inspired me. I think I will be experimenting with the leggy Sow Thistle herb this summer… except for the sap, obviously.
To be avoided by pregnant women as it is known to cause contractions.
This is information I have researched over a number of years. I am not encouraging people to self-medicate and in the treatment of specific conditions it is always best to consult a herbalist or your GP. As stated due to conflicting information regarding this plant this article is for your interest only. Some sources say the plant is highly narcotic and can slow the heart.