The list of types of thistle that are indigenous or have been introduced to North America, and that proliferate across the continent is extensive: floodman, field, wavy leaf, swamp, milk, Canada, bull, musk, plumeless and scotch are just a few of the 200 varieties that thrive. As well, the sow thistle and Russian thistle, while not true thistles, make the prairies and western Canada their home, as well as in many of the states of America. While it is commonly associated with Scotland, the thistle is almost as common as dandelion in the New World.
But thistles, like dandelion, offer a source of sustenance for those of us who are willing to vary our diet to include native weeds.
Unlike dandelion, thistle roots are not edible throughout the growing season. Once the leaves have matured in late spring, the roots become very tough and bark-like. At all times, they have a bitter taste much like the milk in the stems of dandelion flowers. However, they are edible in the spring, and, with a little lemon in the water, they can be peeled and boiled as a nutritious vegetable.
The stalks, too, can be eaten for much of the season, but become tough as the hot weather arrives. By peeling the outer layer of skin, you will be able to eat the stems of most thistles, raw, in the spring and early summer.
The leaves present an obvious problem. Thistles all have spiny leaves that irritate the stomach. Again, though, with a little effort, younger leaves can be trimmed and boiled, then eaten with butter as a lively side dish,
Thistle increases the production of bile, and therefore has value for the liver and gall bladder, and aids digestion while reducing cholesterol. Thistle is recommended for reducing blood glucose and treating diabetes. As a leafy green it contains moderate to good levels of vitamins and minerals.
Most herbal remedies use the milk thistle seed. However, separating the seed from its parachute carrier can be tedious. A simpler way is to use the flower petals in salads, or dry and crush the flowers for use in an infusion.
While thistle is far from a gourmet item in the wild harvesting diet, it is a great option, particularly since it likes to grow where many other plants would wither and die. Since it is one of the earliest weeds to sprout in the spring, it also offers one of the virgin spring feasts from nature, and should not be overlooked.