Common sow thistle is in the Compositae (Asteraceae) family. This is a nutritious plant that contains several minerals (calcium, magnesium, iron, phosphorus, sodium, potassium and zinc) and vitamins ( A, B1, B2, B3, B6, & C). The leaves are also great to use as an antioxidant.

Distinguishing Features: Common sow thistle has hollow stems that exude latex if damaged. It has a short taproot, and deeply lobed leaves. It can be distinguished from Sonchus asper and Sonchus hydrophilus in that they both have stiff and leathery leaves, mostly smooth achenes (fruit) with ribs that are rough to the touch or with hairs. Sonchus oleraceus has soft, thin leaves and wrinkled achenes, with ribs but without hooks.

Flowers: Yellow flowers and are 5-6mm (less than 1”) in diameter and appear on stalks at the ends of branches, in an irregular terminal panicle. The seeds are light with white parachutes of silky hairs (pappus), the silky hairs being 5-8mm long.

Leaves: The first leaves (cotyledons) are round with a slightly toothed margin with a few spines. They have sparse hairs on the upper leaf surface. The mature leaves are thin, soft and dark-green in colour with irregularly-toothed margins ending in small, soft spines. They become increasingly lobed with maturity. The lower stem leaves can be up to 25cm (10”) long.

Height: It grows anywhere between 30 and 110cm (11” – 45”) high. The stems are a 5 angled hollow stem that is dark green (sometimes tinted with a reddish-purple tinge).

Habitat: Common sow thistle likes most soil types, fields, pastures, roadsides, gardens and edges of yards, vacant lots, construction sites, and waste places. Disturbed areas are places of strong preference. Native to Europe, they grow in many countries around the world.

Edible parts: Earlier in the season this plant tastes nice. Leaves and flowers can be added to salads, cooked like spinach or used in soups, casseroles, etc.. The leaves contain vitamin C, protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Cook stems like asparagus. They taste better if the outer skin is removed. Young roots can be cooked as well.

common sow thistle top

In my estimation, the tastiest of the many types of currants and gooseberries that are found in Western Washington is Coastal Black Gooseberry (Ribes divaricatum). With smooth skin and tart flavor, they are a welcomed snack whenever I can find them. Compare them to our region’s other Ribes which all have either daunting looking spines on the fruit, or strongly resinous flavor, and they have even more appeal. 
The first time I laid eyes on a Coastal Black Gooseberry was in June of 1997. My high school buddy, his dad, and I were just getting started on an eight week canoe expedition through the Broughton Archipelago off the Central Coast of BC. Part of our mission was to supplement our diet with as much wild food as possible and we had only packed starchy staples like oatmeal, rice, and beans to force ourselves to forage for the balance of our diet. With little experience ocean fishing or collecting seaweeds, I was keen to collect as many berries as possible, but little was ripe beyond Salmonberries (Rubus spectabilis).
The Red Huckleberries (Vaccinium parvifolium) were starting to blush when we paddled past the hope inspiring place name Berry Island to camp at Mound Island. There along the edge of the white shell beach was a plant I had never seen. I could tell it was related to Prickly Black Currant (Ribes lacustre), but the stems weren’t covered with fine prickles. Young berries were starting to form so I made a note to look for it in the coming weeks.
A month later, when hunger had honed our ability to pull Red Rock Crab out of the shallows barehanded, jig Kelp Greenling without snagging, peal seaweed off the rocks, bake clams on the fire, and find the best (by then ripe) berry patches, we returned to Mound Island to check on those gooseberries. Sure enough, they were ripe and we happily added the large black berries to our morning mix of rolled oats and mashed Salal berries. It was a perfect combination.
It wasn’t until much later that I learned the full name of that gooseberry, and ever since then, I’ve always greeted it like a friend that treated me lavishly during hard but transformative times.
A small Coastal Black Gooseberry on Lopez Island
Note the hairy styles that are fuzed at the base
Coastal Black Gooseberry is a small hairy and armed shrub that normally grows 3-8 feet tall. The red-gray barked stems have up to 3 stout spines at the base of each leaf and normally lack prickles. The ¼-1 inch long spines are initially green, but redden in their first year and fade to orange or tan in subsequent years. Leaves are covered with fine hairs; petioles are ½-1 inch long; and leaf blades are maple shaped with 5 rounded and toothed lobes, the central being the largest and the lateral being the smallest (and sometimes absent). Flowers are solitary or born on 1-2 inch long racemes of 2-4 flowers; pedicels and peduncles are sparsely covered with gland tipped hairs or smooth. Each flower has 5 green-red sepals that usually curve backwards; petals are pinkish-white with a broad tip; the 5 stamens are white or pink, twice as long as the petals; the 2 pistils are covered with fine long hairs where they styles are fused, but are hairless where they split apart near the tip. Berries are purplish black when ripe, round, smooth, and 5/16-7/16” wide with withered flowers persisting on the tips.

A range of flowers and young Coastal Black Gooseberry fruit

Range map courtesy of CPNWH
As the name suggests, Coastal Black Gooseberry thrives near the ocean. I see it most frequently on backshore dunes and rocky bluffs within a stones throw of the saltchuck, but it also grows in open woods at low elevations. It is found from Bella Bella on the Central Coast of BC southward to Los Angeles with only a few populations east of the Cascades, most notably near The Dalles in north central Oregon.
The berries of Coastal Black Gooseberry are traditionally eaten fresh and occasionally cooked, juiced, sauced, or dried into cakes by virtually all Indigenous people that inhabit the plants range (Moerman). The Kwakwaka’wakw—who steward the lands and waters around the Broughton Archipelago where I first learned this plant—traditionally gather the berries while they are still green by beating the bushes with sticks and nocking the fruit onto mats. They are eaten fresh, boiled and slathered with eulachon grease, and more recently with milk and sugar (Turner and Bell 1973).

Your landscape can be a confusing place. As spring’s thaw gradually reveals its details, it can be difficult to comprehend all of the aspects of your gardens and landscape. However, there is a way that you can simplify and categorize it that will make understanding it significantly easier.

I like to break down the landscape into five main layers or niches as a way to organize my thinking. It’s helpful to understand these niches before you go out to do any landscape assessments – say, after winter or a storm to uncover the damage done or before you do a big project and want to use your assessment as a basis for discussion with a landscape professional.

These layers/niches will help you categorize information and plan for the work needed to best maintain your landscape and to make the best decisions around changing it.

layered landscape emerging in springtimeThe layered landscape emerging in springtime.

Here are the five niches as I see them:


 This includes all the tall canopy trees – shade trees and evergreen trees, such as oak, maple, ash, birch, and beech as well as pine, spruce and hemlock.

To see these majestic creatures and really take them in, you have to make an effort to really look UP. They start at about 40 feet tall (the height of a utility pole) and just keep going up!

We are generally not the architects of these plantings. Instead, we often inherit this level from a previous generation, or they are of an older woodland.

This is a PROFESSIONALS ONLY workspace. You want to engage a certified arborist when working in this space. It is VERY DANGEROUS, and the trained professionals know this. Do not use unskilled labor for this work.

Quick story – a neighbor of mine (a great guy, mind you) thought it would be a good idea to have some of the kids from the local agricultural school help him with some tree removal. After all, they were going to school for it, right? What could be the harm? It would be a great hands-on experience.

Haha, not so fast!

That morning, my husband and I – at separate times in different cars – drove by and saw this work in progress. Horrified, we immediately called/texted each other about what we saw. We wrestled with our consciences – should we go tell them to stop? Once we were both home and before we could make a decision, our power went out. We looked at each other in horror and ran outside. The tree they were removing didn’t fall in the direction they planned. Instead, the tree twisted and fell on the wires close to a utility pole in front of our neighbor’s property. The tree pulled the wires, taking out that pole and another one, along with the power for our neighborhood.

Fortunately, no one was hurt. So that was a GOOD story of a well-meaning, kind man, giving some work to eager young workers with some training but NO understanding of the huge public and personal safety responsibility involved in this work.

2. Under-Story Niche 

This encompasses a wide variety of ornamental trees, including flower and fruit-bearing trees. Also any young shade or evergreen trees that are less than 40 feet tall.

These trees may still require a little looking up, but they are more integrated with the visual interest of your property. Coveted flowering trees such as dogwoods, crabapples, cherry, pear, and stewartia remain in this category for their entire lives and become visual anchors or focal points in the landscape.

Many evergreens such as arborvitae, cedars, and cypress also fill this niche as hedges or year-round greenery. These plants generally fill the gap between about 15 feet up to where the sky niche plants take over. These plants may be used as individuals, small groves or long hedges.

It is my opinion that this too is a PROFESSIONALS ONLY workspace; however, I have met avid and well-trained gardeners who can and do manage to take very good care of plants in this realm. What is unique about these people is that they are indeed very careful and take safety into account before work. They also take great care to consider the health and well-being of the plants. If that’s you, this can be a fun place to learn and grow as a gardener.

3. Middle-Story Niche 

All the shrubs you could possibly think of fall into this category, from the big guys such as lilacs, viburnums, and witch hazels; to the mid-range broad-leafed evergreens such as rhododendrons and mountain laurels; to the lower levels of azaleas, hydrangea, and roses.

This is a huge category that also includes many compact and dwarf varieties of understory-sized parents. These are many of the eye-level plants that we see every day coming and going and whenever we stroll or sit in the landscape. We ask a lot of these plants. One of the big asks is that they stay small. These are the plants most at risk of being butchered and sheared to death by our need to keep them static and small.

Take stock of this layer and determine the best ways to care for it so that the plants stay both healthy and vibrant while also pleasing to your eye and well-balanced in the landscape. Sometimes, these are the plants best-suited for transplanting to new locations when they get too big. Or they’re the plants we remove so we can start over.

This layer is best served by the expert pruning skills of both the professional and experienced amateur gardener. I’ve met many homeowners keen on learning how to prune well and just as many so-called landscapers who haven’t a clue. Success in this niche is had by knowing the different needs of different plants to ensure wise care and cutting decisions are determined by the plant’s horticultural characteristics rather than just on size and shape.

4. Ground Niche 

All the low shrubs, perennials, and ground covers fall into this category. It is both diverse in plant type as well as characteristics. This is the layer that is most mutable as you can create and recreate perennial gardens, ground cover beds, and lawn areas over and over during a gardening lifetime.

This layer is the most dynamic and the most forgiving and is truly the playground of gardeners of all skill levels. A daylily will certainly benefit from a skilled hand, but it will also forgive the clumsy hands of a first-time gardener.

This niche changes constantly throughout the year. While the middle-story niche has a season of flowering and color, the ground niche is always changing, and surprises are always afoot when diverse combinations of plants are used together to create a colorful and textural dance through the seasons.

5. Soil Niche 

We don’t see this one, and hardly even stop to consider it, but it is a vast microcosm of activity just beneath our feet. There are layers even within this niche of plant structures and active live biological activity.

Beneath your feet and below your landscape plants there is a whole other world that cannot be forgotten or discounted. The layers and interaction of root systems dictate the availability of water and nutrients as well as the stability and survivability of plants. Overcrowding beneath the surface creates the same struggles as above the surface.

Tread lightly and consciously on this hidden and precious layer. The soil niche is ancient and powerful and easily destroyed by heavy equipment, cars, chemicals and relentless foot traffic.

While this niche is accessible, it is so technical with physical, chemical and biological aspects that anything done on or to the soil needs to have a basis for doing it. Things like soil analysis and testing and/or assessments to understand the scientific characteristics.

This means that partnering with a landscape professional trained in soil management can be really useful when tackling any big problems like drainage and compaction.

The Five Niches – The Secret to Understanding Your Landscape

The five niches I’ve described here cover the astonishing array of ecosystems, plants, and elements (visual and structural) that make up our landscapes. By being conscious of them and carefully considering them individually and collectively, you can assess your landscape and its needs with confidence.

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