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Sow-Thistles

Botanical: Sonchus oleraceus (LINN.)
Family: N.O. Compositae


SOW-THISTLE, COMMON

---Synonyms---Hare's Thistle. Hare's Lettuce.
---Parts Used---Leaves, stems, milky juice.

The Sow-Thistle is a well-known weed in every field and garden. It is a perennial, growing from 1 to 3 feet high, with hollow thick, branched stems full of milky juice, and thin, oblong leaves, more or less cut into (pinnatifid) with irregular, prickly teeth on the margins. The upper leaves are much simpler in form than the lower ones, clasping the stem at their bases.

The flowers are a pale yellow, and when withered, the involucres close over them in a conical form. The seed vessels are crowned with a tuft of hairs, or pappus, like most of this large family of Compositae.

This plant is subject to great variations, which are merely owing to soil and situation, some being more prickly than others.

The name of the genus, Sonchus, is derived from the Greek word for hollow, and bears allusion to the hollow nature of the succulent stems.

The Sow Thistles are sometimes erroneously called Milk Thistles from the milky juice they contain; the true Milk Thistle is, however, a very different plant (see THISTLES).

The Latin name of the species, oleraceus, refers to the use to which this weed has been put as an esculent vegetable. Its use as an article of food is of very early date, for it is recorded by Pliny that before the encounter of Theseus with the bull of Marathon, he was regaled by Hecale upon a dish of SowThistles. The ancients considered them very wholesome and strengthening, and administered the juice medicinally for many disorders, considering them to have nearly the same properties as Dandelion and Succory.

The young leaves are still in some parts of the Continent employed as an ingredient in salads It used in former times to be mingled with other pot herbs, and was occasionally employed in soups; the smoothest variety is said to be excellent boiled like spinach.

Its chief use nowadays is as food for rabbits. There is no green food they devour more eagerly, and all keepers of rabbits in hutches should provide them with a plentiful supply. Pigs are also particularly fond of the succulent leaves and stems of the Sow-Thistle.

One of the popular names of the SowThistle: 'Hare's Thistle' or 'Hare's Lettuce,' refers to the fondness of hares and rabbits for this plant. An old writer tells us: 'when fainting with the heat she (the hare) recruits her strength with this herb: or if a hare eat of this herb in the summer when he is mad, he shall become whole.' Sheep and goats also eat it greedily, but horses will not touch it.

There are three or four other kinds of Sow Thistle, and as an old herbal tells us: 'They have all the same virtue, but this has them in perfection.

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SOW-THISTLE, CORN

Botanical: Sonchus arvensis (LINN.),
Family: N.O. Compositae

---Parts Used---Leaves, milky juice.

The Corn Sow-Thistle is a perennial, with a large fleshy, creeping root. It is found in similar situations as the common species, though mainly in cornfields, where its large, bright golden flowers, externally tinged with red, showing above the corn, make it a conspicuous plant. It is readily distinguished from the Common Sow-Thistle by its stem, which is 3 to 4 feet high - being unbranched and by the much larger size of its flowers, the involucres and stalks of which are covered by numerous glandular hairs. The leaves, like those of the Common Sow-Thistle, applied outwardly by way of cataplasm, have been found serviceable in inflammatory swellings.

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SOW-THISTLE, MARSH

Botanical: Sonchus palustris (LINN.)
Family: N.O. Compositae

---Part Used---Milky juice.

The Marsh Sow-Thistle is a much taller species than either of the preceding, attaining a height of 6 to 8 feet, being one of the tallest of our English herbaceous plants. The root is perennial, fleshy and branched, but not creeping; the leaves, arrow-shaped at the base, large, shiny on the under surfaces; the flowers, large and pale yellow, with hairy involucres, are in bloom in September and October, much later than the last species, which it somewhat resembles, though the edges of the leaves are minutely toothed, not waved. It grows in marshy places but is rare in this country, being now extinct in most of the places in Norfolk, Suffolk, Kent and Essex where it was formerly found, and only occurring on the Thames below Woolwich. This thistle was placed by mediaeval botanists under the planetary influences of Mars: 'Mars rules it, it is such a prickly business.'

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SOW-THISTLE, MOUNTAIN

Botanical: Sonchus alpinus (LINN.)
Family: N.O. Compositae

---Synonym---Blue Sow-Thistle.
---Parts Used---Milky juice, leaves.

The Blue or Mountain Sow-Thistle, a tall, handsome plant with very large blue flowers, but also very rare in these islands (it grows on the Clova Mountains), has been used as a salad in Lapland, the young shoots being stripped of their skin and eaten raw, but Linnaeus informs us that it is somewhat bitter and unpalatable.

Of the Siberian Sow-Thistle (Sonchus Tartaricus), Anne Pratt, in Flowers and Their Associations (1840) says:
'This plant during that clear weather which is generally favourable to flowers, never uncloses; but let a thick mist overspread the atmosphere or a cloud arise large enough to drive home the Honey Bee, and it will soon unfold its light blue blossoms.'
---Medicinal Action and Uses---Culpepper considers that the Sow-Thistles possess great medicinal virtues, which lie chiefly in the milky juice. He tells us:
'They are cooling and somewhat binding, and are very fit to cool a hot stomach and ease the pain thereof. . . . The milk that is taken from the stalks when they are broken, given in drink, is very beneficial to those that are short-winded and have a wheezing.'
He goes on to inform us, on the authority of Pliny, that they are efficacious against gravel, and that a decoction of the leaves and stalks is good for nursing mothers; that the juice or distilled water is good 'for all inflammation, wheals and eruptions, also for haemorrhoids.' Also that:
'the juice is useful in deafness, either from accidental stoppage, gout or old age. Four spoonsful of the juice of the leaves, two of salad oil, and one teaspoonful of salt, shake the whole well together and put some on cotton dipped in this composition into the ears and you may reasonably expect a good degree of recovery.'
Again, that:
'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.'
Finally, he informs us that the juice 'is wonderfully efficacious for women to wash their faces with to clear the skin and give it lustre.'
Another old herbalist also says:
'The leaves are to be used fresh gathered; a strong infusion of them works by urine and opens obstructions. Some eat them in salads, but the infusion has more power.'
The whole plant has stiff spines on the leaf margin, and the seeds and roots are used in homoeopathic medicine.

The milky juice of all the Sow-Thistles is an excellent cosmetic. The leaves are said to cure hares of madness.

See:
HAWKWEED, WALL
HAWKWEED, WOOD
HAWKWEED, MOUSE-EAR
OX-TONGUE

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Bear in mind "A Modern Herbal" was written with the conventional wisdom of the early 1900's. This should be taken into account as some of the information may now be considered inaccurate, or not in accordance with modern medicine.

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