Thistle: It’s That Spine of Year

by Green Deane

in Beverage, Edible Raw, Greens/Pot Herb, Medicinal, Miscellaneous, Plants, Roots/Tubers/Corms, Vegetable

 

Bull Thistle in Blossom. Photo by Green Deane

Thistle: Touch me not, but add butter

Thistles, you’re either going to love ’em or hate em. Of course, I think eating them is the sensible compromise.

Thistles, in this case Cirsium horridulum (SIR-see-um hor-id-YOO-lum) are among the hardest to gather of wild foods, Black Walnuts probably being the worst. But, the reward is edible stalks, edible leaves —trimmed of spines — roots and unopened flower bud bottoms. Like many tasty wild plants, the thistle did not make its way into main stream food channel because of the spines and its two-year growth habit.  The first year the plant is just a root and a rosette, the second year it sends up a stem and blossoms.

Note the basal rosette, photo by Green Deane

The first-year root and leaves are edible, but there isn’t much of a root for a while. The leaves are edible but don’t even bother trying to cut off the spines. That’s too labor intense. Just strip the green off the leaf leaving the very edible midrib.  Rub the “wool” off and enjoy, raw or cooked.  All thistles in the genus Cirsium, and the genus Carduus,  are edible. Or said another way, there is no poisonous true thistle, but not all of them are palatable.

In the second year plant the inner core of the flower stalks is quite tasty and not that much work. The leaves are still edible if you strip them of spines as are the bottom of the flower buds, though the bud bottoms aren’t much more than a nibble.  All can be eaten raw, steamed or boiled.  (Or roast whole by a fire and squeeze the cooked core out.)

Of course, one should wear heavy gloves when working with thistles, and some people have contact dermatitis with thistles, so make sure first. Personally, I prefer the stalks of second year plants in spring, when they are a foot or so high. I just use a long-handled shovel to cut them at the base above the rosette. With heavy gloves and a trimmer I hold the plant upside down and cut off the leaves and sundry spines. Carefully peel the stalk of the fibrous coat, which is most of the green you’ll see. Then you can eat it raw or cooked, I prefer cooked. I think the stalk boiled a few minutes and then served with butter, salt and pepper is absolutely delicious, for a green.

The plant also grows fibrous as it ages — why we don’t eat older stalks — and can be used for cordage. Soaking the plant several days in water makes the threads available. Also, the seed fluff when dry is great tinder. And should you be in the wilderness with little but a thistle for protection, know the Seminole Indians made blowgun darts from the plant. That might require a remaking of the common phrase: I’ve got a thistle stuck in the thick of my tongue. The down was used as guide feathers for arrows.

Incidentally, it’s shaving brush-shaped flowers can be purple or yellow. Personally, I have never seen a yellow one. If by some outside chance you have misidentified the prickly Mexican poppy (Argemone mexicana) for the thistle, the poppy has yellowish sap and flowers, white or yellow, with petals. The thistle’s flower is like a shaving brush when in bloom that then turns into a cottony ball of fluff.

Unopened Thistle Bud, photo by Green Deane

The thistle, which is in the sunflower family, is often called an invasive weed even where it is native. What is native? It can be found around the world and throughout North American and Canada, even in the arctic circle and Greenland, just like the mustard plant, chickweed and blackberries. Thistles can be found from valley bottoms to mountain tops. All you need to be is observant, and hungry. The thistle shown here, C. horridulum, grows from from Maine south along the seacoast to Florida, west from South Carolina to Texas.  When I was a boy growing up in southern Maine this thistle grew every year across the road from our house. Now, it so happens that I went to school eight years in one-room school houses. An annual project, as directed by Mrs. Arlene Tryon, was to bring unopened thistle blossoms to school, hang them up, and watch them turn into cotton puffs. The thistle, by the way, is also food for the larva of the  American Painted Lady butterfly, Black Swallowtail, Delaware skipper, Palamedes Swallowtail, Palmetto Skipper), Three-Spotted Skipper, Twin-Spot skipper (What? No One-spotted skipper?) and other butterflies. Goldfinches like the seeds, too.

A tea can also be made from the leaves and the plant was used in ancient times to treat varicose veins, which in Greek is kirsos. After being bastardized by Latin, Kirsos becomes Cirsium. Horridulum means a little spiny, clearly a joke by Andre Michaeux the botanist who named it. (Also, on something almost completely unrelated, it’s a cute linguistic and conceptual hop from kirsos, varicose veins, to kissos, which means ivy.)

Oh, and a parting factoid: Thistle root gives some folks gas. Thought you’d like to know ahead of time.

Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile

IDENTIFICATION: Biennial or perennial herb, two to five feet high, basal and stem leaves lobed, lower stems leaves can be four to nine inches long, can be woolly in parts, second year stems stopped with shaving-brush flowers, purple or yellow. In some species the branching can be throughout the stalk, in the bull thistle branching occurs only on top. Very spiny, one tough plant. If by chance you have misidentified it with a spiny poppy the poppy has flowers with large petals. If you are in Florida and on the west coast you might see Cirsium nuttallii, which is tall and skinny with many branches.

TIME OF YEAR: Best in spring, first or second year, starting in February in Florida, later in northern climes. In Florida the seasons can be mixed with the plant not taking a break between first and second year growth.

ENVIRONMENT: Sandy open areas, moist or dry, old fields, roadsides, often the only plant still untouched in closely cropped pastures. Some reports say they like wet areas but that certainly is not the case here in Florida.

METHOD OF PREPARATION: Raw, boil or steamed hollow inner stalks peeled of green outer fiber; core of unopened flower buds, when cooked squeezed out like artichoke leaves;  stripped midribs raw or cooked. First year roots once large enough to harvest,  The seeds are edible, 12 pounds will produce 3 pounds of edible oil. Suitable for cooking or lamp use.

HERB BLURB

Native American Indians used thistle for neuralgia, over eating, an herbal steam for rheumatism and to shrink hemorrhoids (presumably without the thistles!)

 

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{ 39 comments… read them below or add one }

Brandon March 9, 2016 at 14:23

Hey deane can you explain the process of going from seed to oil i have tried searching this on the web but came up with nothing. And can this be done with basic tools like pot and pan or do you need special equipment to go from seed to oil. Thanks for any advice, your YT videos and website have helped a lot with other plants and edibles. Keep up the great work.

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Green Deane March 9, 2016 at 14:30

A small hand-cranked oil expeller works well. They cost about $150 on the internet. Can also be used with acorns and palm seeds.

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Sully December 22, 2015 at 11:10

Another species, called the Acanthum vulgare, produces above 100 heads, each containing from 3 to 400 seeds. Suppose we say that these thistles produce at a medium only 80 beads, and that each contains only 300 seeds; the first crop from these would amount to 24,000. Let these be sown, and their crop will amount to 576 millions. Sow these, and their produce will be 13,824,000,000,000, or thirteen billions, eight hundred and twenty-four thousand millions; and a single crop from these, which is only the third year’s growth, would amount to 331,776,000,000,000,000, or three hundred and thirty-one thousand seven hundred and seventy-six billions; and the fourth year’s growth will amount to 7,962,624,000,000,000,000,000, or seven thousand nine hundred and sixty-two trillions, six hundred and twenty-four thousand billions. A progeny more than sufficient to stock not only the surface of the whole world, but of all the planets of the solar system, so that no other plant or vegetable could possibly grow, allowing but the space of one square foot for each plant.

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Sandra November 14, 2015 at 09:18

I live on the East coast of Australia in a sub- tropical zone and I Found wild Scottish thistle today on my walk, will collect tomorrow for “tea” and ” greens” many thanks, feel comfortable after reading all the postings and appreciate everyone’s contributions! Cheers! Sandra

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glenda August 17, 2015 at 20:24

I was stuck with the thistleberry thorn i didnt get all of the thorn out. What could happen?

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Angela C Wilson July 4, 2016 at 16:58

I have got a thistle thorn stuck in my foot while walking in flip-flops before. I did not get all of it out and my foot around the thorn festered and eventually popped the rest of the Thorne out. The worst thing that happens is that it gets very very painful before the rest of the Thorne comes out.

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Lindy June 1, 2015 at 21:45

I was wondering if you can use the flower to make tea or wine?

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Green Deane June 2, 2015 at 10:58

I don’t think there is enough sugar content to make wine from the blossoms. Ants leave it alone.

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Mirjam April 13, 2015 at 17:11

Here in Palestine we chew the dry seeds in late summer; said to be very healthy.

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Cody April 11, 2015 at 13:22

Is “Scotch Thistle” (Onopordum acanthium) edible? What about Distaff Thistle (Carthamus lanatus)?

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Cody April 11, 2015 at 13:28

Specifically the roots.

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Green Deane April 11, 2015 at 20:52

Onopordum acanthium is edible. I do not have any information on the C. lanatus

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Cody April 11, 2015 at 23:02

Thanks for the info! A bit more reading has shown me C. lanatus is not actually in my area, so I should be able to pick and eat all thistles in my area without much discretion. Dinner here I come! 😀

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Viveca Guillot April 5, 2015 at 10:31

Thank you for this information. I am of Acadian descent and heritage. Since I was a small child, my grandmother and mom and I would go each year in the 40 days of Lent to pick these. We peel them for the strings just like a carrot. Cut them in small circles and serve with salt, pepper, vinegar, and a little oil. Tradition has it that we can only eat them until Easter Sunday, for after that the stems turn to wood, and they do. Any idea as to why?

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Green Deane April 5, 2015 at 21:13

What a wonderful heritage and memory. Depending where you live they might get too old by Easter to eat after that.

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robby haseman April 3, 2015 at 11:08

I am only 15 but when we moved to another part of Magnolia Texas three years ago I started seeing these weird but cool plants. They were about a foot or two tall with big yellow or bright pink/purple flowers and very thorny leaves. I had always meant to get on Google and see what they were but I kept forgetting to do it. Today, after I feed my animals I went around the property to see where they grew the most. Only a few grew in the grass and some grew in the red dirt and clay areas but they mostly liked growing where the people that built our house dug a hole to put wood ashes in. The hole was covered up and a lot of really tall dead grass looking things grew there and so did a ton of these thistles. (I still wouldn’t know they where called thistles if it wasn’t for your awesome website!) I accidentally stepped on one and many of the thorns on the leaves got stuck in my foot. I sat down and pulled them out and wondered if they were poisonous. thankfully they weren’t. I did notice that the Blue Orchard Mason Bees really like the thistle plant! My mom doesn’t believe that they are edible and I don’t eat any greens except for green beans but I actually want to see what the thistle tastes like. I also wanted to mention that the ones that are tall and skinny grow here in Texas to. Unless it’s a different type of plant. I might have missed it but I didn’t see if you had the size on the skinny ones. The ones here get to at least 5 ft tall. I let one grow and it as eaten by a deer once it reached my height lol. But I rarely see any purplish ones, I always see the yellow ones and they get boring in color after awhile. Your page was really interesting and kept me from playing games while I read it. If you end up reading this and want me to send you a picture of the thistles here or with the Blue Orchard Mason Bee on it then just tell me in an email and next time I get the chance Ill send you the picture if you asked for one. Thanks for reading my long story lol. (if you didn’t get bored reading it.) Keep up the work on webpages like this! This one was a BIG help! thank you for the help!

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Green Deane April 3, 2015 at 19:23

You might want to visit Foraging Texas to get the exact name of the species. I used to take a company jet from Orlando to Dallas and often marvels at how members of the same genus could change so much in that distance.

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Audrey April 3, 2015 at 00:01

I forgot to add that artichokes are a type of thistle. Delicious!

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Audrey April 2, 2015 at 23:53

Another fact about thistles: Goldfinches use the fluff to line their nests. For that reason, they breed late in the summer, waiting for the fluff. I love your web site! Best regards.

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Valerie March 16, 2015 at 23:39

So much good information!! I let a thistle grow in my yard last year just to see what it looked like. ( I am new to this part of the world and wanted to see it up close.) When I found out it was edible, it was too late and the plant was already 4 ft tall…lol. Thank you for sharing so much detailed info though. I will be looking for thistles on my walks now. 🙂

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Randal Reulet March 15, 2015 at 23:43

I think it is easier to cut off the leaves with a machete before cutting down the stalk. I also scrape the stalk after peeling it, then eat it with Italian dressing.

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Jon Crowe February 4, 2015 at 22:31

Could being stuck by a thistle cause swelling? Last summer I got stuck by a thistle on my left hand between my pinkie finger and ring finger, so much so that after two days and the swelling not going down along with some minor pain in the underside of my forearm I went to a doctor who pretty much told me to go home and stop being a wuss. (So much for “free health care”). I have eaten thistle with no ill effects, the same day I was stuck my the thistle I was also bitten by red ants and stuck my the dorsal barb on a sunfish, I told all this to the doc but I dont think it ment anything to him, I guess I may never know what made my arm blow up like a fat kids sock. Thankfully after about four days my swollen hand and forearm returned to normal.

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Green Deane February 5, 2015 at 06:26

Think of it this way. The thistle is covered with needles that break easily. Yeah, they can stick you and break off and cause a problem.

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Floradd January 12, 2015 at 13:57

Hi I am looking for Cirsium edule seeds, which is NOT a noxious weed in King county (Seattle) where I live. This is a key species for native butterflies here. Does anyone know where I can get some? Is anyone interested in being paid for wild collection? I can’t find a source any where. Thanks!

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ben January 1, 2015 at 09:06

i read somewhere thistle sprouts were good eatin, anyone know anything about that?

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adri December 14, 2014 at 04:58

I forgot to say we stew the stalks of milk thistle. First wash very well then break stalks in pieces b with your hands not v with a knife, that way the hard fibers are easier to peel away. Then with the knife cut into 3 or 4 inch pieces.

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adri December 14, 2014 at 04:53

Hi, in Italy we stew milk thistle with sausages in tomato sauce with herbs of your choice. It is very common and very good! Buon appetito!

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kevin July 6, 2014 at 01:13

Juice it.
Or remove stems, chop, fill with water, blend, strain, sweeten, and drink.
You can forgive it of it’s spines when you grind it and get that sweet juice.

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Janet March 24, 2014 at 21:51

Thanks for the info about eating thistle. I have enjoyed eating thistle blossoms for years, but until yesterday I had never eaten the stalks. I ate some fresh stalk pieces, and I peeled and cooked four more stalks. Yummy!

Thanks for a great website!

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Rob Cruickshank October 28, 2013 at 13:30

I am surprised that no one has mentioned the CRITICAL role thistle plays in goldfinch reproduction .
Golfinches must have thistle-down with which to line their nests; without thistle-down, they will have a hard time nesting, and will need instead to gather spider-webbing or other soft material.
The American Goldfinch begins its breeding season later in the year than any other finch and later than any other native North American bird, besides occasionally the Sedge Wren. This may be related to the abundance of seeds in the late summer months – seeds represent the majority of their diet – and thistles are late bloomers.
So leave a few thistles to grow, for the sake of the “wild canary” (goldfinch).

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Green Deane October 28, 2013 at 16:38

Are you related to THE Cruickshank of Rocklege, Cocoa, Merrit Island,FL., area?

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lynward September 20, 2013 at 12:35

natural rennet for making cheese can be made of the dried thistle blossom I’ve heard

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jim adams September 5, 2013 at 16:19

Hi — we’re currently living (here in central Virginia) in the midst of a perennial old field of 20 acres or so. It’s perennial because the landlord gets it mowed once a year and has done so (more or less) for the last 20 years.

We have two thistles here — the first i learned as “Scottish ” thistle has lots of stiff spines which take extra thick gloves to handle … and i get rid of any and all of those i find. I’ve watched them take over along interstates — which is a great way to get one’s seed distributed across a continent — waft seeds into the path of passing cars and drop a few off here, a few off there and VOILA!!! — progeny from coast to coast

The other which i’ve been calling “American thistle” also has spines but the only really stiff ones are on the bud. All the rest are — well — not really friendly, but if i’m careful, i can handle them with out gloves, it doesn’t hurt when i brush them with bare legs, and i can grab the stalks at the base with bare hands (uncalloused). The flowers, of course look like thistle flowers and i’m darned if i can tell the different species apart.

Two i’ve left in our yard have grown to about 8 feet. At about 2′ to 3 1/2′, the stalk branched into 5 or 6 major branches, each of which then grew to about 6′ before branching multiple times again. At the base, they’re about 2 1/2″ in diameter. The flowers are favorites of Tiger Swallowtails, an occasional Silver Spangled Fritillary, and of course our humming bird love them.

Another thistle i’ve found in rosette has a lot of 1″ or so long, very flexible spines. The tips go right into my skin and i can definitely see (feel?) how a deer or buffalo touching one of those with it’s nose would not try to eat it.

So how DO i identify thistles? What sets them apart, aside from the stiffness of their spines?

I’ve read thru your site on thistles (love it, and will eat these weeds — next year)

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J Wolf August 14, 2013 at 15:31

We have a Varegated Milk Thislte or Thor’s Thislte growing, it is very large and beautiful, is there a place on this web site to send photos of it.
Have tried for 3 years to grow one, finally, and it is thriving.
Have a common Thislte that is over 6 feet high in the bush here, Canada.

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Joan U Norris May 10, 2013 at 21:08

You can buy supplements of milk thistle. Dr Oz recommends them for liver detoxification. Is it possible to forage for milk thistle and can the same benefits be obtained from the plant or parts thereof? Also do any of the other thistles have this same benefit?

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johnny June 24, 2014 at 09:58

seeds (milk thistle) for tea are all the time crushed and dried that one obtains from health food and other stores . Best to make ones own teas. A lot of what I have read is that in many a state(s) thistles being weeds are outlawed to grow/possess. Poisons are usually used to erradicate. I did obtain some seeds for thistles and was disappointed until learned it can take a year or so for them to sprout. I now have them growing in my lawn. Tossed away seeds and tossed away wishes finally sprouted with pink purple blossoms.YAHOO – THISTLES EXIST AND THRIVE. A good thorn in my saddle!

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dianne May 26, 2012 at 15:20

So far I’m really enjoying your site. I too am originally from Maine and live north of Tampa in Florida. My mom used to forage in Maine ( Milkweed, dandelions, goose greens and periwinkles alonge the seacoast) but we never became familiar with what was in the west coast of Florida. Do you have a book with photos so one could forage without a computer as reference? If not I’m sure I could print out what’s on your site. Thanks for sharing what you have learned along the way

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Daniel November 16, 2011 at 01:50

Hello Green Deane,
I love your website, articles and videos. Your efforts are appreciated tremendously. I was wondering if you had any plans for a milk thistle profile. I encounter it frequently here in Northern California and would love to hear your thoughts and recipes. Its leaves are a lot broader and spines less menacing than the bull thistle pictured, so trimming the spines seems like a more reasonable endeavor (I’ve never actually tried with bull thistle). Also, the yellow star thistle grows prolifically out here. I can’t find much information on its uses (if any) on the internet though. Any thoughts? Thank you.

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Green Deane November 16, 2011 at 06:33

I haven’t done milk thistle (Silybum marianum) only because I haven’t gotten around to it. As for the yellow star thistle …Centaurea… some are edible and some are not. The native American one (C. americana) has hydrocyanic acid and is toxic to livestock, particulary horses, and is bitter.

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