Monday, July 4, 2016

Another tasty thistle

While the native Edible Thistle (Cirsium edule) may be my favorite (see previous post), the introduced Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare) is pretty darn good too.

Bull Thistle is a well armored tap rooted biennial with a crowded rosette of basal leaves. Leaves are deeply lobed with long sharp spines at the tip of each lobe, and several smaller spines along the margins. Many of the lower lobes are further divided into 2-3 points that twist sideways so that one angles downward, one outward, and one upward. Even when the leaves are lying flat on the ground, those upward reaching spines are the bane of barefoot walkers. Upper leaf surfaces are dark green with a whitish green central vein, and the undersides are light green. Plants are covered throughout with long stiff hairs. Flowering shoots begin to emerge mid-spring of the plant’s second year and reach full height 6 weeks later. Shoots usually arise singly from the tap root but if the plants are mowed multiple stems will develop. Stems are hairy and covered with spiny, leaf-like vertical ridges that make them difficult to grab bare-handed. Branches are usually limited to the upper half and arise from the leaf axils. Flower heads are found singly at the branch tips. The heads are large, hairy, and exceedingly spiny with a squat pear shape. Hundreds of purple flowers bloom from the tip of each head.

Perfect stage for collecting
Bull Thistle in flower

Canada Thistle (Cirsium arvense)
Don’t confuse this plant with Canada Thistle (Cirsium arvense), which has leaves that are not as deeply lobed, stems that are smooth (lacking vertical and spiny stem-wings), and smaller, more clustered flower heads.
Bull Thistles are common in old fields and disturbed roadsides from sea level to the sub alpine.

Hiding behind all that armor is a tasty vegetable. The shoots of Bull Thistle are best harvested mid-spring before they have reached full height or show any sign of the flower heads. Wear gloves or be prepared for a painful experience! I slice the stalk near the base with a pocket knife and then peel them from the base to the tip, revealing the tender and tasty stem. They are firm, filling, and delicious with only a mild bitterness.

Bombus vosnesenskii pollinating Bull Thistle

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