Today’s plant for #WildEdibleWednesday is Cirsium vulgare, or Bull Thistle. Bull thistle is a member of the large, diverse, and exceedingly useful Aster family, along with daisies, liatris, late purple aster, and sunflowers. Most plants in this family are beautiful, delicate, meadow flowers that are the kind of thing you’d pick for your lady friend or that an artist would paint a still life of. Not bull thistle. Oh, naw. It looks like it came straight out of Little Shop of Horrors, and if you don’t cut it down, it’ll break into song and try to eat Rick Moranis:
Bull thistle is a herbaceous biennial, which means that it grows a large (3’ diameter) rosette of leaves on the ground in its first year of life, and in its second year, it sends up a huge stem, blooms, goes to seed, and dies. Bull thistle is easy to identify – there’s not much else out there that looks like it. First of all, it’s huge. It’s a big, menacing-looking plant that can grow well over 6’ tall and spread just about as wide in ideal conditions. Secondly, it’s covered in thorny spines from root to crown. Its large (12”-36” long) deeply lobed leaves are tipped with spines. It has spines up and down its thick stem. Hell, even its flowers are spiny. It looks about as friendly and approachable as the plant version of an angry raccoon. Its flowers are actually quite beautiful close up – they’re bright pink, about 2” in diameter, with thin silky petals. They’re surrounded by a wreath of thorns, but despite their appearance, they’re one of the richest flowers for nectar on this continent. Bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and other pollinators all love them. It has no deadly or toxic mimics, and is safe to use in all phases of its life cycle.
Thistles are an old-world plant – they’re native to almost all of Eurasia from Portugal to China, the Middle East, and North Africa. They’re one of the hardiest plants around, and one of the few you’ll see thriving above the Arctic Circle. This is actually a good one to know if you plan to travel to the far north – it’s a reliable edible in summer wilderness survival situations in Canada, Alaska, and Siberia alike. They’ve become naturalized in the rest of the world – Australia is covered in them, so is South America, and on this continent, they’re nearly everywhere. They’re considered a noxious weed everywhere they grow… even where they’re native. They spread far and fast on the wind by their tiny, fluffy seeds, and are nearly impossible to get rid of once you have them. They possess a taproot that drills down as much as three feet into the ground. Try pulling that up. They’re a full-sun plant, and grow in open areas that don’t see a lot of mowing – pastures, abandoned fields, woods edges, roadsides, waste areas, abandoned home or industrial sites. I hiked through miles and miles and miles of them growing in meadows and highland pastures on the Appalachian Trail in Tennessee and Virginia.
Despite its intimidating appearance, thistles are actually an incredibly useful plant. If you’re brave enough to slay this botanical dragon, every part of the plant is edible. The flavor isn’t bad – generally, plants covered in spines aren’t bitter, because they don’t need a flavor deterrent for grazing animals. The roots are probably the most nutritious – although they’re bland, they have a starchy, crispy texture and are high in carbohydrates as well as a range of vitamins and minerals. If you’ve ever had Jicama or Jerusalem Artichoke, bull thistle root is similar. The leaves are edible as well when cooked as a potherb, although it’s recommended to soak them in brine overnight before cooking. The stems are edible when peeled, although they get much tougher as the weather gets hotter. The flowers themselves are edible when in the bud stage or in full bloom – when they’re buds, they can be cooked and eaten just like mini artichokes. In bloom, the pink part (without thorns) can be pulled off and eaten raw. It’s full of nectar, mildly sweet, and is great for an energy boost.
Thistle is a useful medicinal plant as well. An infusion made from it is good for treating rheumatism, sore muscles, and arthritic joints. It’s an astringent, and a poultice is known to treat hemorrhoids. You should probably remove the spines first, though. And a decoction made from the leaves is good for treating viral infections such as colds and the flu.
Finally, bull thistle has several uses as a bushcraft plant. When the plant goes to seed, those bright-pink thorny flowers turn into huge, fluffy seed heads with thousands upon thousands of seeds. That thistle down, as the seeds are called, makes an excellent flash tinder. Some native tribes across the world also made use of the plant for hunting – they would use the thorns as blowgun darts and fletch them with the seed fluff to hunt small game such as birds, squirrels, and rabbits.
Some of y’all who are of Scottish heritage may know that the Bull Thistle is the national emblem of Scotland, much like the Shamrock (white clover) is of Ireland. It seems fitting, since the bull thistle is a pretty badass-looking plant, and the Scots were traditionally a fierce, badass sort of people. Legend has it that during the reign of Alexander III, (sometime between 1249 and 1286, if you care), King Haakon of Norway, one of the last of the Viking kings, set his mind on invading Scotland. He got wind of where King Alexander’s army was encamped and attempted to land an amphibious invasion under the cover of darkness in order to take them completely by surprise. In fact, he wanted to be so stealthy that he ordered his men to take off their shoes. The move backfired, because unfortunately for the Norse, they were advancing through a field full of thistles, and the thorny leaves pricked the soldier’s bare feet and made them cry out in pain. This, of course, alerted the Scotsmen, who promptly slaughtered the Vikings before they could get back to their ships. The legend grew, and the thistle was officially made the royal symbol of Scotland in 1470.
So with all that being said, maybe it’s best not to judge a plant by its outward appearance. After all, there are plenty of deadly plants which look innocent enough. And even though bull thistle might look intimidating, it’s a useful and valuable plant for food, medicine, and bushcraft… if you can just get past all those thorns.
Have you tried thistle? Did we miss anything? Am I the only one that thinks it belongs in Little Shop of Horrors? Tell us in the comments!