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Sow thistle provides nutrition for small pets and their owners

The classic lobed leaf of sow thistle.
The classic lobed leaf of sow thistle.
P O'Beollain

The word ‘thistle’ often brings to mind images of sharp-spined leaves and large purple, spiky flowers, such as that found on Bull thistle. By contrast, sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus) – also known as hare thistle - has few to no spines, very soft, tender leaves, and many cheerful yellow flowers on a each stalk.

A favorite of pigs and rabbits (thus the name), the succulent stems of this annual are hollow and exude a milky sap when cut. The irregularly-lobed leaves are a pale green, becoming a darker green (sometimes with some purple coloration) as the plant ages. There can be great variations among sow thistle plants due to differences in soil and growing conditions; while most plants have spine-free leaves, some may have tiny, soft prickles. Height of the plant can range from one to 6 feet, depending upon the particular species and growing conditions. Sow thistle is especially valuable when dealing with a poor appetite and/or dental issues in the house rabbit, as the leaves are extremely soft, tender and are more easily eaten by a bunny with a sore mouth. Bunnies with poor appetites may be tempted into eating a few leaves of sow thistle when nothing else appeals to them.

Sow thistle is high in vegetable protein, iron, vitamin C and essential fatty acids, and is very nutritious for both house rabbits and humans. Young sow thistle leaves have a taste that is somewhere between raw broccoli and spinach, and are a great addition to salads. Humans may also wish to try the leaves sautéed, boiled, steamed, or added to soups; stems can also be prepared in this manner (older, larger stems may need to be peeled first). The plant is edible all season long, but of course the cooler-weather greens are less bitter than leaves picked in the heat of summer. Leaves and stems become a bit more tough and bitter with age.

The roots are edible, but quite bitter, somewhat similar in flavor to chicory root. Sow thistle roots are prepared in a similar manner (dug, cleaned, roasted, and then ground) for use as a tea or mock coffee. Flowers can be used to make wine (similar to dandelion wine) and the unopened buds can be pickled by dropping them into a pickling brine (you can use the brine from store-bought pickles!).

As with any other wild edible, be sure to harvest only from areas not sprayed with chemicals or fouled with automobile exhaust.