Eating Thistles


There are loads of thistles round here but until I started looking closely at them I didn’t realise there were many different types. It is not always easy to identify them from books because they tend to concentrate on the flowers, which are pretty similar. It is the leaves which vary. These are the four main varieties I have found.

First is the creeping thistle (Cirsium arvense), the name of which refers to the roots rather than the foliage. The leaves are glossy with prickles all along the sides. It’s a perennial which can be a bit of a pest in gardens.

The next is the spear thistle (Cirsium vulgare), which has leaves with fearsome spikes sticking out from the front and sides and upwards.

The flower is commonly thought to be the model for the Scottish thistle.

The next is the thistliest thistle you will ever see, with prickles all over. This is the welted thistle (Carduus crispus).

Finally one with yellow flowers, the prickly sow-thistle (Sonchus asper).

The distinguishing feature of this plant is the way the base of the leaf curls almost all the way round the stem.

All these species are valuable food plants for insects, but perhaps more surprisingly they are recommended by many as food for us too. Stems, leaves and roots may be eaten and they are said to be bursting with vitamins and other things that are good for you. YouTube is full of videos by foragers, many of them American.

Here is an example:

(Incidentally, I wonder who was the first to look at one of these heavily armoured plants and think, ‘Yum, that looks good enough to eat.’)

There are plenty of recipes for cooking them too. Here is an example: 


  • 5 prickly sow-thistle tips per person
  • knobs of butter


1.    Put the sow-thistle tips into a steamer and steam for about one minute.

2.    Place on plate and serve with a nice creamy salted butter.

Even I could manage that.  

Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

*Republished from Conservative Woman