Forage Wild Thistle For An Unexpected Treat

Considered the sign of an ill-kept farm by many, the prickly, persistent and surprisingly tasty bull thistle is best dealt with slathered in cream cheese or sautéed.

by Frank Hyman
PHOTO: Frank Hyman

There are few farm or garden weeds more hated than bull thistles (Cirsium vulgare) and for good reason. The leaves are very prickly. The roots run deep making them hard to pull.

The seeds float like dandelion fluff and will launch their next generation into every downwind plant bed. It’s so hated that it’s considered an indicator of a poorly managed farm. 

But I now love them and not just for the edible roots and midribs. For me, the best part is the stalk. At its prime, you may enjoy the sweet taste and juicy texture of honeydew melon. Sam Thayer’s book The Forager’s Harvest offers the best treatment on thistles. 

Read more: Sunchoke is a delicious, wild-growing tuber that’s worth finding.

This’ll Taste Like Thistle

Catch a bull—or most any—Cirsium in mid-spring, after some good rain when the stalk is still young and the flowers have not yet formed or only just started opening. Find a nonprickly spot on the stalk to hold with thumb and forefinger.

(Those living a callous-free lifestyle may want to don leather gloves.) 

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With your pocketknife, cut the stalk off at the base and slice off each of the leaves and flower buds where they meet the stalk. Some prefer to hold the stalk upside down for this.

You’ll be left with a 1- to 2-foot-long stalk that’s an inch or so in diameter. 

With your knife, peel off the fibrous, outer skin of the stalk. Yes, I know it sounds like a lot of work so far, but I wouldn’t be telling you about this one if it weren’t well worth it.  

With the leaves, flower buds and outer skin gone, you’ll be left with a bright green, moist, hollow tube of edible vegetable. I’ve sliced them lengthwise, slathered on cream cheese and eaten them raw at their prime with great joy. If you catch them a little late or when the season is dry, they might have the less-sweet flavor of a cucumber.

Depending on where your thistle harvest lands on the spectrum of maturity, it may warrant a sauté in butter to enhance flavor and texture. Either way, after your first good meal of thistle stalks, you’ll want to befriend all those bad farmers.

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Sidebar: In Season

Other wild edibles found in mid-spring:

  • ramps
  • smilax vine tips
  • black locust flowers
  • stinging nettles
  • trout lilies
  • dandelions
  • wild onions
  • prickly pear pads
  • basswood leaves
  • poke weed shoots
  • knotweed shoots
  • giant Solomon’s seal shoots
  • mayapple fruits
  • oyster mushrooms
  • Dryad’s saddle mushrooms

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.

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