Table of Contents
- Edible Uses of Bull Thistle
- Medicinal Uses of Bull Thistle
- Alternative Uses of Spear Thistle
- Growing Cirsium Vulgare
Bull thistle (cirsium vulgare) is a common sight in sunny pastures and along the roadside here. Its (also euro) cousin Canada thistle (cirsium arvense) will be covered another time, even though the edible and medicinal usage is similar. Bull thistle is more edible.
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Edible Uses of Bull Thistle
You wouldn’t look at any of these prickly plants and think about eating them offhand, but some of them can be tender and sweet.
Burdock and bull thistle are not only lookalikes but are wild food twins. They even taste similar. These spiny plants can be confused, but with a little familiarity they can be easily told apart. Distinguishing between thistles can be trickier, but it’s worth learning. You can dig up and eat the invasive ones guiltlessly. As always, make sure you’re completely positive about your ID.
The roots of the first year rosette can be peeled and eaten raw or cooked. By the following spring the long taproot can be dug up, and is best dug before the flowering stalk gets too large and fibrous. They can be eaten raw, but due to an ingestible sugar, inulin, may cause gas in raw form. The sweetness of the taproot comes out when roasted. The cooked root can be prepared like potatoes or dried and ground into flour. Keep in mind roots from pastures may harbor bacteria and need to be cooked.
Harvest young leaves and second year stems early in the growing season. Collect stalks when they can still be bent easily, long before flowering. The crispy new leaves and stems are usually sweet and juicy, but first they need carefully peeled to remove prickly spines. (Gloves may be helpful!) With experience, one can peel off the spines in 30 seconds. De-spined parts can be eaten raw or as cooked vegetable. You can also eat older leaves, but as usual they are bitter – boiling helps to remove some of the bitterness.
Store-bought artichokes are a cultivated thistle species. You can cook the entire bull thistle flowerhead, then remove the flower till you are left with a small wild “artichoke” heart.
Medicinal Uses of Bull Thistle
Bull thistle is primarily said to support these body systems:
Medicinal tags include Astringent and Diuretic. See Medicinal tag key for more information.
Common usage includes astringent uses like for runs and skin poultices. For skin uses, dry out the roots first if you have sensitive skin.
Alternative Uses of Spear Thistle
This is another plant with great fluff after going to seed. You can use it for pillow stuffing, insulation, even tinder.
Tough older stems can be twisted into cordage. You can make fishlines and snares from it too.
Thistle seed oil was used as a lamp oil in Europe.
The flower petals can be chewed in place of gum.
Growing Cirsium Vulgare
Bull and Canada thistles, among others, are European imports. If you wish to plant true thistles we have a couple native species that may work in most of Ontario. One native thistle is field/pasture thistle (cirsium discolor). There’s also swamp thistle (cirsium muticum). They are just as important for pollinators as bull and Canada thistle in their native spaces. And sadly at times our native thistles have been pulled out just like the invasive, and they have suffered from the introduction of non-native thistles. Plant native thistles and talk about them and we can help them bounce back! Countless birds, bees and butterflies will benefit.
Consume in moderation.
Beware the spines.
And the Usual Cautions:
1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation.
2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk.
3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored.
4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.
5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.
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Field Guide to North American Edible Wild Plants (Out of Print)