Sonchus oleraceus: Sow thistle

Family: Asteraceae
Common name: Sow thistle, Common sowthistle, Smooth sow thistle, Milky tassel, Milkthistle, Hare thistle, Swinies

Sow thistles belong to the same family as dandelions and are seen in the wild, on roadsides and open areas. They can range in height from 30 cms to 2 meters depending on the growing conditions and the species. The stem is green, hollow and tender, easy to break.

The leaves are broad, glossy and green, without any stalk, so that they stick to, and wrap around the main stem. They have coarse teeth around the edges and wavy margins. The buds and flowers are formed at the tip of the stem, raised above the plant.

The buds look very pretty, slightly bulbous at the bottom and pointy towards the tip. Flowers are deep yellow, about an inch in diameter, with numerous petals, which are all ray florets. They do not have any disk florets at the center.

Sow thistle plants also produce fruits which have a single seed that is released when the fruits dry and dehisce. The stem produces a milky latex when cut, and they were fed to pigs in order to increase milk production in lactating pigs. In fact, it is a preferred food for all cattle who help in seed dispersal. Rabbits also like to eat sow thistle plants, giving it an alternate name ‘hare thistle’.

The flowers attracts birds, insects and ants who help in pollinating them. Sow thistles are used as food in parts of the world, the leaves eaten raw or cooked in salads and curries. The name Oleraceus means vegetable, denoting its use as a vegetable like spinach. The older leaves have a distinct bitter taste, which is removed on cooking.

The plant is a good source of several minerals and vitamins. The leaves also have antioxidant properties. Sow thistle plants are used in treatment of headaches, fever, inflammations, liver diseases, ulcers, skin disorders, wounds, gastritis and many other common ailments.

They are considered an invasive species since they can grow from cow dung or animal manure, added to farmlands. But sow thistles can be easily pulled out by hand without damaging other crops nearby.

Propagation is from seeds.

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