SOW-THISTLES (Sonchus sp.)

Prickly Sow-thistle...

....flowering in November on the verges of the Moreton Road.

There are many native plants of which the flowers are usually described as “dandelion-like”. They include catsear, hawkbit, hawksbeard, hawkweed, ox-tongue – all very confusing. The yellow “dandelion-like” flowers which you see along the verges of our country roads from June onwards are however likely to be sow-thistles, of either of the two common species, the smooth and the prickly.

These two annuals are superficially quite similar. Both can grow up to 3 feet in height; they have loose clusters of pale yellow flowers, about an inch across; the leaves, which have softly spiny margins, clasp the stem; both plants produce a milky juice; the seeds, like those of the dandelion, are in a ‘clock’ The main difference is in the leaves. Those of the smooth sow-thistle (Sonchus oleraceus) are pinnately lobed – that is, they are strongly toothed – and they clasp the stem with pointed lobes; those of the prickly sow-thistle (S. asper) are usually more spiny and undivided, clasping the stem with rounded lobes. The leaves of both – with spines removed – may be eaten in salads.

Text by George Metcalfe. Photos by Colin Wootton.