In a crowded and noisy pub many moons ago I was asked what I’d been up to that day by a friend of my partner’s mum. She was a very lovely, woman sitting across from me with her daughter, neither of them had ever heard of foraging, let alone been foraging. I explained that I’d been experimenting with eating thistles. I had to repeat myself a number of times and I’m still not sure that they fully understood what I was talking about. That might have been a while ago and yet, I still regularly come across people who say things like, “you what, you eat weeds?” It is situations like these that help to remind me that foraging can still be quite a niche activity.
The thistles I had been eating were creeping thistles and what I found the most rewarding was the thistle nut that sits in the centre and at the bottom of the flowering head. To obtain pull out all the petals whilst flowering and push in a thumbnail to scoop out the tiny thistle nut. It is small, but as a little wayside snack (I think) it is well worth the little effort needed to obtain it. The flavour has been described as similar to sunflower seeds which isn’t surprising, considering that it is in the same family. The creeping thistle has quite a small thistle nut but it is easily obtained by grabbing hold of the flowers and pulling. Possibly not worth bothering with by the end of the summer as they can often be maggot ridden.
Often plants will use some method of protection against being eaten, especially when going into flower. For some this is an increase in bitterness, others nothing short of killing you will be enough to protect themselves and their future offspring. The thistle is a prickly bastard and because it defends itself this way, it doesn’t have to create any level of bitterness or toxicity. This means the stem, roots and leaves are all edible too. Don’t attempt them without taking the spines first, it might sound like an obvious warning but this was something I neglected to do the first time I had a nibble. I thought like nettles steaming would be enough believe me and the multiple lacerations in the side of my mouth, it really isn’t.
Various different native American tribes have used creeping thistle as medicine. Using it to treat a host of conditions including cancer, haemorrhoids, to induce vomiting, stomach cramps, as a mouthwash and for tuberculosis.
Had I have done my homework a bit more, all those years ago, I’d have found that the stems are far easier to harvest than the leaves. The leaves can be cut off the plant in situ, leaving the stems to be peeled. The root too can be eaten, which, for gardeners who want to pull out thistles and banish them from their vegetable patches, they can at least reward themselves with a little treat. They are best before they bolt up and go to flower. When I used to own an allotment I’d munch on them raw. It’s fairly easy just to dig them out and cut off the tops with a spade or trowel. All you have to do then is wipe the roots on your jeans and shove them in your gob. It might not be how a Michelin star chef serves them up, but it works as a little snack.