Quelite : Sowthistle : Sonchus oleraceus

also called : smooth sowthistle, milk thistle (1), rauriki, pūhā, pūwhā, pororua, lechuguilla, cola de zorra (foxtail), colewort, hares lettuce, hares thistle, rabbit thistle, kŭcài (苦菜)(bitter vegetable)

  1. The plant usually known as milk thistle is a completely different plant, Silybum marianum, which is also known as Saint Mary’s Thistle and is in itself a valuable herbal medicine.
Saint Mary’s Thistle

Another plant introduced into Mexico that can be considered a quelite is sowthistle. Sowthistle is an annual herb native to Europe, Asia and northern Africa. It is a common urban plant, which in many places is considered a weed, and can be found on roadsides and on the periphery of parklands. It quickly colonises disturbed areas of vegetation and cleared land or construction sites. The seeds of this plant are light and fluffy and are easily dispersed by wind. It can be found world-wide.

Sowthistle seed head.
Photo by Melody Hefner.

The name “sowthistle” came from the observation (and supposition) of a 17th Century herbalist, Dr William Coles, that when sows had piglets they “greedily desired” this plant because they knew by “certain natural instinct” that it would increase their milk production.

Photo shows angular, hollow nature of the stem (actual size). This is a young plant, stems can easily be double or triple the width of the plant shown. Plant has been freshly cut so the white latex is clearly visible.

The plant has hollow angular stems which exude a milky latex when cut (1). The name “sonchus” is derived from a Greek word (sónkhos) meaning “hollow” which alludes to the hollow succulent stems of this plant.

  1. Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) also have a hollow stem that exudes a white latex when cut but the stem (or more properly, the peduncle or flower stalk) is circular in cross-section. The stems of the sowthistle are angular in cross-section. Another herb often confused with dandelions is called Catsear (Hypochaeris radicata). This plant also exudes a white latex when cut and its stem too is circular in cross-section but it is solid. All three plants have similar yellow flowers (although dandelions have 1 stalk per plant and 1 flower per stalk while catsear and sowthistle both can have multiple stalks and flowers per plant), all have similar leaf structure and all have similar fluffy seed heads. The leaves of all three plants are edible while young but become more bitter as they get older and larger and when they flower.

Medicinal Uses.


flavonoids, flavonols, proanthocyanidins, phenols, saponins, phytate and alkaloids, luteolin, apigenin, caffeic acid,  kaempferol, quercetin, caftaric acid, scopoletin, esculetin


Anti-inflammatory, anticancer, antidepressant, antidiabetic, antinociceptive, antioxidant, antimicrobial, antimalarial, antipyretic, antiscorbutic (1), antitumor, antiulcerogenic, antiviral, anxiolytic, cytotoxic, depurative, escharotic (2), febrifuge, galactagogue, hepatic, sedative, tonic, vermifuge

  1. antiscorbutic – having the effect of preventing or curing scurvy
  2. escharotic (eroding) – the fresh sap is used to apply to warts and corns to erode them.

This herb is used primarily as a digestive tonic and blood purifier. Traditionally an infusion of this herb has been used to bring on late or suppressed menstruation, as a galactagogue to increase milk production in breastfeeding mothers, improve loose bowels, eliminate worms, as a liver tonic and to strengthen digestion. The sap was diluted in water and drunk to cool the stomach, ease inflammation, eliminate kidney stones and to relieve diarrhoea.

Sowthistle was one of the plants used by the British explorer Captain James Cook (1728 – 1779) as an antiscorbutic. The sea voyage from England to Australia was a long one and sailors on long voyages were very prone to an often fatal illness called scurvy which is a disease of nutritional deficiency caused by a lack of vitamin C. Although he did not do it alone, Captain Cook is largely credited with solving the problem of scurvy and only a very few of his seamen ever suffered from ths illness.

Maori (1) peoples have traditionally used this herb as a tonic and for women during childbirth, to assist the placenta removal, with reducing the risk of haemorrhaging.

  1. the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand

A decoction of plant has been used to treat haemorrhoids.

The white latex like gum has been used to remove warts. The gum also has a reputation of being used to treat opium addiction. How this was done I am not sure. Smoked? The use of the plant in this manner may be mistaken with that of Wild lettuce (Opium Lettuce – Lactuca virosa). According to Miller (1985) The dried latex (of L.virosa) may be dissolved in alcohol or smoked as pure resin or in a smoking blend together with herbs such as Cannabis or thorn apple.

The tincture dosage of this plant (1:1 strength) is 10-40 mls per week


The root of the plant is a potential abortifacient. Medicinal usage should be avoided during pregnancy.

Culinary usage

There is a saying in Chinese: ’When the spring wind blows, sow thistles thrive. Wild plains turn into stores of food.’ (春风吹,苦菜长,荒滩野地是粮仓)

Sowthistle is known by the Maori peoples of New Zealand as Puha (poo-ha) and is a popular green vegetable. I first discovered this plant when I came across a young Maori girl wildcrafting it in an empty plot of land in an urban area. She recommended it be used in a soup like dish with pork bones. The young leaves can be eaten as a salad leaf and are one of the wild greens used in the Italian salad mix misticanza.

The unopened flower buds and young roots of this plant are also said to be edible (although I have not tried either) and the stems can be steamed and eaten like asparagus. You could lightly oil them with a herbed oil and grill them once steamed.

Sowthistle taproot

I have found several references to the flower of this plant being used as an agent to curdle milk for the production of cheese but deeper research has always (so far) led me to other species of plant (usually) thistles (1) and I have yet to find a recipe for cheese made using this flower

  1. Cardus/Cnicus/Cynara species – as well as sorrel (Rumex species), nettles (Urtica species), cardoon (Cynara cardunculus), and lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum)
Sowthistle blossom.
Photographer:Tony Wills, 4-Dec-07

Pork and Puha Soup
Ingredients (serves 4-6)

  • 3 kg pork neck, pork hock or whatever you’ve got (cut into smaller pieces)
  • 2 medium onions, roughly diced
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 carrots sliced
  • 1 leek, roughly chopped
  • 4 celery sticks, roughly chopped
  • 1 bunch parsley, leaves removed from stems – keep the stems tied together in a bunch with string
  • Salt and pepper, to taste 2 bunches puha, roughly chopped
  • Optional – 1 bunch watercress / handful nasturtium leaves


  1. Add the pork, leek, celery, garlic, onion and carrot to a stock pot and fill with cold water to cover all the ingredients. Add the bay leaves, bunch of parsley stalks and the salt and pepper. Bring it to the boil and allow it to simmer for about an hour.
  2. Remove the pork from the stock, remove the meat from the bones, chop roughly and keep aside.
  3. Remove the bunch of parsley stalks from the stock. Add the roughly chopped parsley leaves and the puha/watercress to the stock and simmer gently until wilted. Don’t cook too long or boil the soup too rapidly or your greens will lose their colour and vibrancy.
  4. Place some of the chopped pork into a bowl and ladle over some of the soupy greens.

Puha was also used in a similar manner to banana leaf or hoja santa in that it was used to wrap food. Eels or kokopu (1) are covered with pūwhā or mauku (2) leaves before cooking.

  1. a type of scaleless fish endemic to New Zealand
  2. a species of fern

Sowthistle in Butter Sauce

  • 1 or 2 handfuls young sowthistle leaves
  • Butter
  • ½ cup Beef stock (or water)
  • Ground nutmeg – pinch
  • 1 tsp. flour
  • Salt and pepper

For this recipe use the young leaves of common sowthistle [S.oleraceus] before the plant flowers as this is when the leaves are least bitter. Other sow-thistle species may need spines trimmed off and may require blanching to reduce their bitterness.

  1. Heat some butter or oil in a pan and add the leaves. Stir thoroughly to coat the leaves.
  2. Add a good slug of stock or water, reduce the heat to a simmer and cover. Cook for about 5 to 10 minutes.
  3. Add a pinch of nutmeg, the flour and some seasoning.
  4. Stir everything, then add another knob of butter and melt into the sow-thistle over a low heat.
  5. Serve.

  • Alrekabi, Dalia gh. And Hamad, Maha N. : Phytochemical Investigation of Sonchus Oleraceus (Family:Asteraceae) Cultivated in Iraq, Isolation and Identification of Quercetin And Apigenin : Department of Pharmacognosy and Medicinal Plants , Baghdad College : J. Pharm. Sci. & Res. Vol. 10(9), 2018, 2242-2248 : ISSN 0975-1459
  • Esraa A. Alothman, Amani S. Awaad, Amal A. Safhi, Shekhah S. Almoqren, Reham M. El-Meligy, Yara M. Zain, Fatmah A. Alasmary, Saleh I. Alqasoumi : Evaluation of anti-ulcer and ulcerative colitis of Sonchus oleraceus L, : Saudi Pharmaceutical Journal, Volume 26, Issue 7, 2018 : Pages 956-959 : ISSN 1319-0164
  • Jimoh, Florence.O; Adedapo, Adeolu.A and Afolayan, Anthony.J : Comparison of the Nutritive Value, Antioxidant and Antibacterial Activities of Sonchus asper and Sonchus oleraceus : Department of Botany, University of Fort Hare, South Africa : Rec. Nat. Prod. 5:1 (2011) 29-42
  • Miller, R.A. The Magical and Ritual Use of Aphrodisiacs. New York: Destiny Books, 1985.
  • Simopoulos, Artemis & Gopalan, C.. (2003). Plants in Human Health and Nutrition Policy. Nutrition Research – NUTR RES. 23.
  • XU Yan and LIANG Jing-Yu : Chemical Constituents of Sonchus oleraceus L. : Department of Natural Medicinal Chemistry, Nanjing, China : Journal of China Pharmaceutical University : 2005

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s