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Sow thistles
Sonchus oleraceus
Scientific classification Edit this classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Clade: Tracheophytes
Clade: Angiosperms
Clade: Eudicots
Clade: Asterids
Order: Asterales
Family: Asteraceae
Subfamily: Cichorioideae
Tribe: Cichorieae
Subtribe: Hyoseridinae
Genus: Sonchus
Type species
Sonchus oleraceus[2][3]
  • Chrysoprenanthes (Sch.Bip.) Bramwell
  • Kirkianella Allan
  • Sonchidium Pomel
  • Taeckholmia Boulos
  • Atalanthus D.Don
  • Wildpretia U.Reifenb. & A.Reifenb.
  • Aetheorhiza Cass.
  • Embergeria Boulos
  • Phoenicoseris (Skottsb.) Skottsb.
  • Babcockia Boulos
  • Trachodes D.Don
  • Actites Lander
  • Sonchoseris Fourr.
  • Lactucosonchus (Sch.Bip.) Svent.
  • Acanthosonchus (Sch.Bip.) Kirp.
  • Sventenia Font Quer

Sonchus is a genus of flowering plants in the tribe Cichorieae within the family Asteraceae[3][5] and are commonly known as sow thistles (less commonly hare thistles or hare lettuces). Sowthistles are annual, biennial or perennial herbs, with or without rhizomes and a few are even woody (subgenus Dendrosonchus, restricted to the Canary Islands and Madeira).[6][7][8][9][10]


Sonchus hierrensis in the Canary Island of La Gomera.

The genus is named after the Ancient Greek for such plants.[clarification needed] All are characterized by soft, somewhat irregularly lobed leaves that clasp the stem and, at least initially, form a basal rosette. The stem contains a milky latex. Flower heads are yellow and range in size from half to one inch in diameter; the florets are all of ray type. Sonchus fruits are single-seeded, dry and indehiscent.[11] Sow thistles are common roadside plants, and while native to Eurasia and tropical Africa, they are found almost worldwide in temperate regions.[12]

Mature sow thistle stems can range from 30 cm to 2 m (1 to 6 ft) tall, depending upon species and growing conditions. Coloration ranges from green to purple in older plants. Sow thistles exude a milky latex when any part of the plant is cut or damaged, and it is from this fact that the plants obtained the common name, "sow thistle", as they were fed to lactating sows in the belief that milk production would increase. Sow thistles are known as "milk thistles" in some regions, although milk thistle more commonly refers to the genus Silybum.


The following 106 species are accepted by Plants of the World Online as of March 2023.[13]


Sonchus tenerrimus and Sonchus oleraceus infest many crops in Italy, especially in the southern area of the peninsula. They are considered tasty edible plants and are cooked with spaghetti and meatballs.

In many areas sow thistles are considered noxious weeds,[14] as they grow quickly in a wide range of conditions and their wind-borne seeds allow them to spread rapidly. Sonchus arvensis, the perennial sow thistle, is considered the most economically detrimental, as it can crowd commercial crops, is a heavy consumer of nitrogen in soils, may deplete soil water of land left to fallow, and can regrow and sprout additional plants from its creeping roots. However, sow thistles are easily uprooted by hand, and their soft stems present little resistance to slashing or mowing.

Most livestock will readily devour sow thistle in preference to grass, and this lettuce-relative is edible and nutritious to humans—in fact this is the meaning of the second part of the Latin name of the common sow thistle, oleraceus.[15] Attempts at weed control by herbicidal use, to the neglect of other methods, may have led to a proliferation of these species in some environments.[16]


Sow thistles are common host plants for aphids. Gardeners may consider this a benefit or a curse; aphids may spread from sow thistle to other plants, but alternatively the sow thistle can encourage the growth of beneficial predators such as hoverflies. In this regard sow thistles make excellent sacrificial plants. Sonchus species are used as food plants by the larvae of some Lepidoptera including Celypha rufana and the broad-barred white, grey chi, nutmeg, and shark moths. The fly Tephritis formosa is known to attack the capitula of this plant.[17]

Sow thistles have been used as fodder, particularly for rabbits, hence the other common names of "hare thistle" or "hare lettuce". They are also edible to humans as a leaf vegetable; old leaves and stalks can be bitter but young leaves have a flavour similar to lettuce. Going by the name pūhā or rareke (raraki) it is a traditional food eaten in New Zealand by Māori. When cooked the flavour is reminiscent of chard


The greens were eaten by the indigenous people of North America. Edible raw when young, the older greens can also be eaten after cooking briefly.[18]


  1. ^ Cho, M. S., Yang, J. Y., Yang, T. J., & Kim, S. C. (2019). "Evolutionary comparison of the chloroplast genome in the woody Sonchus alliance (Asteraceae) on the Canary Islands." Genes, 10(3), 217.
  2. ^ Lectotype designated by N. L. Britton & A. Brown, Ill. Fl. N.U.S. ed. 2. 3: 316 (1913).
  3. ^ a b "Sonchus L.". Tropicos. Missouri Botanical Garden.
  4. ^ Flann, C (ed) 2009+ Global Compositae Checklist
  5. ^ Linnaeus, Carl von. 1753. Species Plantarum 2: 793-795 in Latin
  6. ^ For a recent review of woody species, see Seung-Chul Kim et al. (1996). "A common origin for woody Sonchus and five related genera in the Macaronesian islands: Molecular evidence for extensive radiation." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 93:7743-7748.
  7. ^ Shi, Zhu; Kilian, Norbert. "Sonchus". Flora of China. Vol. 20–21 – via, Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis, MO & Harvard University Herbaria, Cambridge, MA.
  8. ^ Altervista Flora Italiana genere Sonchus photos and distribution maps for several species
  9. ^ Atlas of Living Australia
  10. ^ Flora Zambesiaca
  11. ^ R., Walters, Dirk (2006). Vascular plant taxonomy. Keil, David J., Murrell, Zack E. (5th ed.). Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Pub. Co. ISBN 0757512143. OCLC 62889410.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  12. ^ Hyatt, Philip E. (2006). "Sonchus". In Flora of North America Editorial Committee (ed.). Flora of North America North of Mexico (FNA). Vol. 19. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press – via, Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis, MO & Harvard University Herbaria, Cambridge, MA.
  13. ^ "Sonchus L." Plants of the World Online. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Retrieved 16 March 2023.
  14. ^ USDA, NRCS (n.d.). "Sonchus arvensis". The PLANTS Database ( Greensboro, North Carolina: National Plant Data Team.
  15. ^ Arthur Lee Jacobson website Archived September 17, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
  16. ^ Management of common sow thistle, Queensland Government
  17. ^ White, I.M. (1984). Tephritid Flies (Diptera: Tephritidea). Handbooks for the Identification of British Insects. Vol. 10 pt 5a. Royal Entomological Society of London. pp. 134 pp. ISBN 0901546682.
  18. ^ Angier, Bradford (1974). Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books. p. 208. ISBN 0-8117-0616-8. OCLC 799792.

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