What comes to mind when you think of thistle? Probably some unattractive adjectives like thorny, scratchy, ugly, and a real nuisance! I recently saw miles of thistle outdoors in a state park. They popped up here and there in the woods and along trails. They seemed to be everywhere as I biked and hiked; No system or pattern. Some plants were short, fat, and as tall as my kneecap. Other ones towered above my head!
I came up with a few adjectives of my own for thistles and they may surprise you. Thistles can be beneficial, beautiful, fascinating, and helpful, among other things. They also have healing properties and is a source of food and water. These plants are really interesting if you truly think about it.
Thistle is a member of the sunflower and daisy family Asteraceae. Did you know that artichokes are a part of the same family? Florida has at least nine different species of thistle and they are considered biennial plants, not really weeds. Biennials start from seeds the first year and produce their own seeds the second year. Each thistle plant produces up to 4,000 seeds. Thistles start to bloom earlier than most plants and can continue to bloom for months. Their flower is usually a light to deep purple in color. Fading blooms change to fluffy white seed balls that look much like cotton. The loose seeds scatter off in the wind.
Thistle flowers offer nectar and pollen for bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, moths, and other insects. Their leaves, stems, flowers, and seeds also offer food. Thistle seeds are a great snack for songbirds such as finches and cardinals. Without thistle we’d probably have less crops, less beneficial insects, and fewer birds around.
Native Americans knew about the benefits of thistles both medicinally and for protection. Seminole Indians made thistle stems into blow guns and used them as weapons. Other Native Americans often boiled the plant down to a paste and used to treat wounds and boils. Thistle root was also known to be good for stomach aches. Even today thistle is known for medicinal properties in the treatment of swollen joints and tendons. MIlk thistle is used to treat ailments of the liver such as cirrhosis, jaundice, and hepatitis. A tea made from thistle leaves is said to help with gall bladder and stomach disorders. Milk thistle capsules are sold on Amazon to promote liver and gall bladder health. (Do consult your physician before adding any supplements to your wellness plan.)
In fact, the entire thistle plant is edible. You can cook the root, stalks, blossoms, and can make a tea from the leaves. Because of the prickles you should handle the plant carefully while wearing heavy gloves. Keep a knife handy for cutting the stems and stripping the leaves. Mid-ribs of the plant are also an excellent source of water.
So what did I see this past week that prompted all this? I watched fat bees dig into beautiful purple thistle blooms. I saw tall, thorny thistle stalks silhouetted against the sunrise. I noticed that their flower pods really do resemble cute little artichokes. Their seed pods really do look like small cotton balls. I wondered where the wind would take those seeds next.