I have noticed quite experienced recorders struggling with these.  They are not difficult as long as you do not get too carried away with the vernacular names. Prickly Sow-thistle (Sonchus asper) always looks prickly, but stunted or young plants are often soft to the touch. It is very common in waste ground and roadsides, on sea and other cliffs.  The auricles look like this:

Asper auricle   Photo: Carl Farmer

S. asper auricle   Photo: Carl Farmer                     Reproduced with permission

see Carl’s website page at  Even on young plants the auricles are distinctive and diagnostic.

Sonchus oleraceus (Smooth Sow-thistle) has straight, spreading, non-prickly auricles that do not clasp the stem. This is rare locally and as far as I know confined to wasteland and roadsides (except one site on Canna apparently).

Sonchus arvensis (Perennial or Corn Sow-thistle) is unlikely to be confused with the other two and is restricted to damp coastal areas, though it apparently also used to be found as an arable weed.  But see Carl’s website if in doubt:


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