Creeping Thistle and Sweet Chilli


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.

The flavour has been described as similar to sunflower seeds

In order to harvest the thistle leave ribs, cut off long leaves from the plant.

Sweet Chilli Thistles Recipe

Marcus Harrison -might not be a Michelin Star chef, but he is certainly someone who is very well regarded in the foraging community. A fella who has been experimenting with wild food for many years. The below recipe is an original from his excellent online (and free) resource The Really Wild Food Guide and I thank him for allowing me to reproduce it here. He used the dwarf thistle (Cirsium acaule) for this recipe, but creeping thistle and many others can be used, do experiment!

In order to harvest the thistle leave ribs, cut off long leaves from the plant. The easiest way to do this is to hold the tip and sweep a very sharp knife into the end attached to the stem. Marcus suggests leaves that around 12 inches (30cm), smaller will work too but they will be a little more fiddly to prepare. Once cut, drop the leaves into a basket and take them home. They can then have the spines cut off in the safety of a kitchen. The rest can be composted. To get a good hold of them, put some gloves on. Marcus suggests using just the thickest 3-4 inches of each rib and using one handful per person, he also suggests that each rib should have any downy material scraped away to reveal the green stem beneath. These stems can then be eaten raw and I think taste a little like celery, due to their consistency and bite more than the actual flavour.


  • Thistle leaf ribs
  • Chilli powder – pinch
  • Oil
  • 1 tbsp. tomato puree
  • Water or stock
  • Honey – clear
  • Salt and pepper

Drop the greens into boiling water and cook for about 3 – 5 minutes. Time will depend on rib thickness and bitterness, sample one rib after suggested time and try not to overcook.

Meanwhile, take a pinch of chilli powder and heat in a pan with a slug of oil to release the flavour. Add some tomato paste to the pan and stir in, followed by about 1 cup of water or stock. Stir. Add the thistle greens and simmer gently for about 5 minutes. Season to taste and then stir in a good slug of clear honey.

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