It's #foragingsaturday with Claire Fleetneedle from Fleetneedles Forage and it is time to get all prickly with Thistles.
As a Stuart and later Scottish symbol introduced by James II in the 1680’s the Thistle, specifically Scotch Thistle (Onopordum acanthium) has endured. However versions of this tall prickly herb inhabit the entire British Isles and many parts of the world. Having had several painful childhood experiences with the plant, namely sitting and walking in bare feet on it, you can understand why I have since given the herb a wide berth. Apparently there are around fifteen different species in the UK; I have Creeping Thistle (Cirsium arvense), Bull or Spear Thistle (Cirsium vulgare) and Marsh Thistle (Cirsium palustre) growing in my local area.
The Thistle in all its forms has long been the farmer’s bane and a great deal of effort was once given to eradicating the plant on agricultural land as this rhyme from an 1866 edition of the Suffolk Garland explains…
Cut thistles in May,
They grow in a day,
Cut thistles in June,
That is too soon:
Cut thistles in July,
And then they will die
The Thistle is not completely useless to Farmers though, the leaves make excellent cattle fodder if they are crushed to reduce the spikes. I was amazed to discover humans can eat Thistle too. Generally the stems and the roots in their first year are the most palatable, and they should be cooked like rhubarb or asparagus. Thistles are not considered the tastiest foraged food and are thought best soaked overnight in salt water to remove some of the bitterness. They are also considered rather bland and many sources suggest consuming them with other vegetables. Despite their lack of appeal Thistles do have nutritional value, containing vitamin C, calcium, iron, potassium and zinc. Although I still don’t fancy them I can understand why they have been a useful famine food in the past.
Thistle flowers were once collected to make country wines, although I have been unable to source a recipe. The fluffy seed heads were also utilised forming the stuffing for upholstery, pillows and mattresses and were also saved to use as tinder for fires. The seeds of various Thistles were once collected and cold pressed for their oil. The inner stem fibre of specifically the Spear or Bull thistle was once collected during the summer months, pulped and made into paper.
Almost all members of the Thistle family have been used for folk medicine, in Welsh country herbals it was thought to have a purifying tonic effect on the liver and blood. The herb was said to stimulate the circulation and to banish lethargy, replacing it with an energised feeling of well-being. This was all achieved with an infusion of the leaves and stalk, a glass being taken twice daily.
Early herbalists thought the plant even able to prevent the Plague. The 17th century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper does not mention this wonder cure but clearly thought Thistles to be beneficial…
All these thistles are good to provoke urine, and to mend the stinking smell thereof ; as also to mend the rank smell of the arm-pits, or the whole body ; being boiled in wine a drunk, they are said to cure a stinking breath, and to strengthen the stomach. Pliny saith, that the juice bathed on the place will cause the hair to grow….
I have been unable to discover whether the plant actually works as an internal pit freshener or if it really acts as a hair restorer. But regardless the plant continued to be used in the following centuries to treat a range of ailments from pleurisy to rabies. Thistle was also thought beneficial for digestive problems and for increasing milk in nursing mothers. In more recent times an ointment made from the herb has been used to treat splinters and plant stings and prickles. In Chinese medicine the herb is used to treat all kinds of inflammation.
It seems that this troublesome farmland ‘weed’ has far more virtues than evils, and even though the sharp sting of sitting on it is still clear in my memory I thinks it’s time to let bygones be bygones and give this surprisingly versatile herb another chance…
These are some of my personal experiences using Thistles combined with information I have researched over a number of years. I am not encouraging people to self-medicate, in the treatment of specific conditions it is always best to consult a herbalist or your GP. If you should develop an adverse reaction to any of the above please stop using the herb immediately. And always take care when identifying the plant. If you plan to eat some the herb, please try a small amount to begin with to ensure your system can tolerate it.
LIFE ON PIG ROW DISCLAIMER: We’d like to thank Claire for this wonderful piece, as she points out, this is her personal experience and common sense must prevail in homemade herbal remedies. Therefore, if you are out and about foraging and aren’t confident that what you are about to pick is edible or medicinal the best advice is to leave it where it is. In the event of an adverse reaction to any homemade herbal remedy or foraged edible food you are advised to seek out medical advice. While every care is taken in the production of these posts neither Claire Fleetneedle nor Life on Pig Row are responsible for adverse reactions. Please remember to check local by-laws before foraging and never forage on private land without permission. Please use common sense when foraging.