Sow Thistle

(Sonchus oleraceus) Despised these days as a food plant, but it was not always so - "whilst they are yet young and tender, they are eaten as other pot-herbes are" (Gerard). And so it has been all over the world. All the sow thistles are edible (though not very interesting). They are probably best in soups and casseroles. Or cooked as a vegetable with something else with a stronger flavour. Some people actually eat them raw, as an ingredient in salads (Jordan).

Unlikely as it may seem, this is a plant with a distinguished background. In Wales, it used to be said that anyone who carried it in his hat would be able to run and never get tired. In like manner, it was tied to the tails of horses before a ploughing match. But it had its dark side, for if one man used it, it would take the strength out of his companion, and if by accident a man gave some of the leaves to his wife, one of them would waste away and die (Trevelyan). In Russia, the plant was said to belong to the devil (Dyer), but the Welsh belief was that the devil could do no harm to anyone wearing a leaf from the plant (Trevelyan), or as one of the Anglo-Saxon herbaria said (in translation) - "so long as you carry it with you nothing evil will come to meet you" (Meaney).

Sow Thistle would disclose hidden treasure, too, if properly treated, and like other plants that could do that, it opened locked doors as well. These sesame qualities are well to the fore in Italian folklore concerning the plant (Gubernatis). There are magical uses recorded from Macedonia - see Abbott for some examples. It has got a milky juice, so by the doctrine of signatures, it was given to nursing mothers. Coles said it was called Sow Thistle because sows knew that it would increase the flow of their milk after farrowing; perhaps that was the reason why Welsh farmers put some of the leaves in the pig trough, though it was said the reason was to fatten them (Trevelyan). A separate tradition associates the plant with hares rather than with pigs. Various old names appear (Hare's Palace, Hare's Thistle (Dyer; Henslow), and Hare's Colewort, the last a translation of Brassica leporina, one of the old Latin names (Britten & Holland)). An old legend tells how this plant gave strength to hares when they were overcome with the heat. This is from the Anglo-Saxon Herbal - "of this wort, it is said that the hare, when in summer by the vehement heat he is tired, doctors himself with this wort". It is more likely, given the Somerset names Rabbit's Meat and Rabbit's Victuals (Macmillan, Grigson), that hares and rabbits actually eat them. Cowper wrote that his pet hares were very fond of Sow Thistle.

According to Culpeper, "its juice is wonderfully good for women to wash their faces with, to clear the skin, and give it a lustre". Similarly, "the herb bruised or the Juice is profitably applied to all hot inflammations in the Eyes ..." (Coles). Actually, the juice has been quite seriously used as eye drops, and the use for the complexion might very well be the result of its having been taken for liver troubles, or as a blood purifier (Watt). Another use for the juice was for "to kill a wen", at least according to a 17th century manuscript from Jersey, and of course the juice has been used to put on warts (Barbour).

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