Sonchus oleraceus

Earth Medicine Special Report: Sow Thistle from David Bruce Leonard on Vimeo.

PLANT NAME: Sonchus oleraceus L.

SIMILARLY USED SPECIES: Sonchus alpinus, S. arvensis, S. asper, S. brachyotus, S. kirkii, S. palustris, S. tenerrimus, S. uliginosus, S. wightianus.

COMMON NAMES: Pualele [Hawai’i]; sow thistle, hare’s thistle, hare’s lettuce [USA]; rauriki, pororua, puwha, puha [Maori]; cerraja, serraja, diente de leon lechoso [Colombia]; leche [Bolivia]; llamp’u [Aymara]; qarasapi [Quechua].

FAMILY: Asteraceae (Daisy family).

CATEGORY: Clear heat and toxins~.

PROPERTIES: Bitter, cool to cold, mildly toxic.

PLANT PART USED: Leaves, stems, juice, root.

PREPARATION OF MEDICINE: Infused or decocted.

STATUS IN HAWAI’I: Alien. Moderate pest factor. Sonchus has the questionable distinction of being considered one of the world’s worst weeds, a pest in more than 55 countries. In Hawai’i, however, I have never seen it out of control.

WESTERN FUNCTIONS: Abortifacient [Houma]; anticancer (sap); antidiarrheal [Houma]; anti-inflammatory [China]; “blood purifier”[Hoama]; calms the nerves (leaves); cathartic [Pima (stem juice), Turkey]; clears infections [China]; cure for opium addiction [China, Pima]; digestive purgative [Pima]; diuretic [Turkey]; emmenagogue; emollient [Haiti]; febrifuge (leaves and roots infused); gynecological aid [Potawatomi (S. arvensis)]; heart medicine [Navaho (S. asper)]; hepatic; hydrogogue (stem juice) [Turkey]; insecticide; lactogogue [Turkey]; mild laxative [New Zealand]; narcotic [China]; pectoral; pediatric aid [Houma, Iroquois (S. asper)]; poison [Navaho (S. asper)]; poultice; refrigerant [Spain, Turkey]; sedative [China, Iroquois (S. asper)]; stop bleeding [China]; to prevent infection (topical) [New Zealand]; tonic [Sudan, Turkey]; toothache remedy [Houma]; vermicide [Tanzania].

RANGE: Native to Europe. Found in Australia, Europe, Asia, Middle East, and North and South America.

HABITAT: Sonchus was part of the “Thistle Invasion” of North America three hundred years ago that involved as many as 120 different species. See Notes ‘n Quotes. As all good asteraceaes are wont to do, Sonchus spp. spread quickly. It is known for its remarkable skill in adaptive radiation [Kim 1996]. In Hawai’i it lives upcountry on both wet and dry sides.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARESEARCH: The leaves as a green are anti-oxidant [El 2004].

TOXICITY: Possibly mildly toxic. May contain large quantities of nitrates. See Use as Food.

CAUTIONS AND CONTRAINDICATIONS: Not in pregnancy. Overuse of stem juice as a cathartic can cause anal irritation and GI cramping.

ENERGETIC CAUTIONS: Caution with cold deficient spleen / stomach~.

NOTES

  • It is recorded by Pliny (Caius Plinius Secundus, A.D. 23-79) that before Theseus encountered the bull of Marathon, he had a meal of sow thistles.

  • According to the 16th century herbalist John Gerard, unscrupulous upholsterers filled mattresses and pillows with sow thistle down instead of goose down.

  • Sonchus is a prime example of a “DYC” among botanists: a “Damned Yellow Compositae.” They are so named because of the difficulty in differentiating species within the family. See Habitat.

  • Traditionally used similar to dandelion.

  • Like some mumbling old eccentric uncle, Sonchus has that familiar and raggedy appearance that is at once comforting and amusing.  It is reasonably effective for bronchial infections with yellow phlegm; and if the phlegm has caused digestive disturbances, Tropaoleum majus (pohe haole) can be added. Sonchus also makes a good secondary herb in formulas for tonsilitis and sore throat. It is useful in small doses as a bitter tonic for the Spleen deficient patient with a sluggish liver.