Thistles are not a beloved plant. In 19th century Victorian Flower Language, a bouquet of thistles communicated a misanthropic dislike of humankind, and a warning to stop your meddling. Safely navigate their spines, and you will find a delicious green and useful wild plant. Harvest them without gloves and you will wish you’d never meddled.
With so many different plants called thistles, identification can be confusing. The thistles we’re discussing here are in the Asteraceae family and most commonly have purplish-pink tufty flowers and thoroughly spined leaves and stalks. New Mexico’s 12 native thistles are all in the Cirsium genus, while our non-native varieties are found across Carduus, Cirsium and Onopordum.
Being wild perfume nerds, we seek out the invasive Nodding (Musk) Thistle and Creeping (Canada) Thistle for their particular fragrance. Nodding Thistle is a great plant-based source for musk in botanical perfumery – a precious and hard to find smell outside of the animal kingdom. The sweet, powdery fragrance of these purple flowers have assertive notes of warm leather and compelling dusty and resinous musk. Creeping Thistle is less complex, but still lovely, light, floral and sweet.
To capture a thistle’s perfume, we harvest the blossoms and snip their string-like petals into alcohol (tincturing), or lay the entire flower face down on glass sheet covered in solid fat, which we charge with many changes of flowers and eventually wash with alcohol (enfleurage). Both methods leave us with perfumed alcohol that we evaporate away, leaving a tiny and potent amount of thistle absolute that we blend into our desert perfumes. If you can’t find thistles in bloom, you can smell this heavenly fragrance in our Rosehip+Thistle desert perfumes, beauty oils and botanical soaps.
In addition to making delicious perfumes, thistles have a rich folklore throughout Europe, one place of its origin. There, thistles have been credited with the ability to direct lightening away from your house, let you know when good new is coming and remedy elf-lock (a uncomfortable disease caused by malevolent spirits in Poland). The 11th century Scots chose the humble thistle as their national emblem after being protected from a stealthy night attack from an opposing army. As the story goes, the approaching army had removed their shoes to walk quietly and avoid detection. In the dark, one Norse solider stepped on a thistle, screamed in pain and alerted the sleeping Scotsmen, allowing them to win the battle.
Thistle has also been loved for a variety of other uses. Across the globe, and for thousands of years, it has been used to treat everything from baldness, snake bite and cancer to the bubonic plague. Modern research recognizes its specific benefits for the liver. Thistle down, once used to stuff pillows and mattresses, also makes great tinder for your campfire and beautiful paper. Thistles are an indicator of rich soil and attract a profusion of small winged wildlife. Pollinators love them. Painted Lady butterflies rely on them as food plants for their tiny ones. Goldfinches eat the seeds and line their nests with thistle down. Thistles are pretty good stuff.
Lucky for us, thistles are tasty for humans too. The root, seed, unopened flower buds, leaves and stalk are edible from all Carduus and Cirsium species. Some taste better than others. When cooked, thistles taste mild, sweet and a bit like nutty artichoke. The seeds press well for a nice cooking (or lamp oil) – and can be toasted for a wild addition to your morning cereal. First year thistle root is delicious raw or cooked. Second year thistle root is delicious neither raw or nor cooked, but quite decent roasted as tea. Raw thistle stalks and leaf ribs are cool, crunchy and sweet – minding that you peel them first. Plants protected with this many spines have little need for bitterness. First year plants appear as a spiky rosette, sending up a stalk and flowers the next year.
Harvesting thistle takes patience, seasonal timing and a good pair of gloves. If you are envisioning a fresh chopped thistle salad, forage in the late spring and early summer. By July most thistle stems will be pithy, tough wood. If that’s what you’ve harvested, clip and strip the stems of all spines, steam them and squeeze out the sweet inner pith. Sounds weird, tastes delicious. Young thistle leaves are nice juiced, and the root is a good substitute for burdock in recipes. (FYI thistle root causes gas in some people. To avoid this, ferment them in kimchi, sauerkraut or pickles.)
If you are ready to harvest, first be sure of your identification. New Mexico is thick with non-native thistles, ripe for the picking. Nodding thistle, Canadian thistle, Bull Thistle and Scotch Thistle are our most prolific populations. As with all wild harvested foods, be 100% sure of your identification, forage from clean areas with no pesticides or asphalt run-off and test for sensitivity to the plant before eating. For greens, cut the stalk at the base, or uproot the entire plant. Using gloves, cut away the root and save. Make a cut in the stalk at the base and peel away the spiny stuff in long strips. If this is too complicated, carry a sharp knife, hold the plant by the roots and cut way anything that looks painful. Thistles are high in fiber, protein, phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, copper, and general yumminess. In Portugal, they are a desirable vegetable, even sold at markets.
Being a plant that people love to hate (and few have the patience to identify properly) many of our native thistles get poisoned along with the invasive varieties. Sadly, this means more herbicides into the soil and water and the death of important native pollinator plants. At Dryland Wilds we work with land stewards to teach the value of hated non-native plants while reducing their seed loads through consistent harvest without the use of herbicides. Each spring, we search out this spiny plant and happily eat thistles until they bloom. And when they bloom, we make perfume out of the
References (read more about the stuff mentioned above...)
Harrison, Marcus. Plants and the Plague: the Herbal Frontline. Marcus Harrison, 2015.
“Saving Pollinators, One Thistle at a Time.” The Prairie Ecologist, The Prairie Ecologist, 26 Aug. 2015, prairieecologist.com/2015/08/26/saving-pollinators-one-thistle-at-a-time/.
Shoberl, Frederic. The Language of Flowers: with Illustrative Poetry: to Which Is Now First Added, the Calendar of Flowers. Lea and Blanchard, 1843.
Siegel, Abby B, and Justin Stebbing. “Milk Thistle: Early Seeds of Potential.” Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Sept. 2013, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4116427/.
“The Xerces Society » Native Thistles: A Conservation Practitioner's Guide.” The Xerces Society » Neonicotinoids and Bees, xerces.org/native-thistle-guide/.