The Thistle – A Great Source Of Food, Medicine And Raw Materials

The Thistle - A Great Source Of Food, Medicine And Raw MaterialsThe thistle has a bad reputation, almost everyone is familiar with it and its prickles, a number one characteristic. Livestock owners hate it because very few domesticated animals will feed upon the plant. Thistles are despised herbs, regarded as a noxious weed by farmers. However, the way I see it, the thistle is a wonderful plant with many useful treats for preppers and homesteaders.

Once they gain entry into unused fields, it is very difficult to eradicate them. Thistles are considered invader plants, spreading rapidly in disturbed soils. They compete directly with food and cash crops for the limited space, water, and nutrients in the soil. They will live wherever conditions are favorable for growth and reproduction.

Thistle distribution

Singularly or in patches, the thistle prefers dry rocky or moist sandy soils of forest clearings, meadows, swamps, pastures, blackland prairies, open fields, roadsides, railway roadbeds, and along the banks of streams and rivers.

In the mountains, thistles like to grow in open sunny slopes or in the cracks of steep cliffs. Thistles have a worldwide range of distribution from North America including Canada and Mexico, to Europe, Asia Minor, and into the mainland of Asia. They are found predominately in temperate to subtropical climatic regions.

The thistle is known by other common names as brush-Rower and prickly turnip. It is a member of the Compositae or Daisy Family and has several scientific designations as CazrIus, Cirsium, and Cnicus, depending upon the authority being relied upon. The first two terms are New World designation while the last is European.

A forgotten history

Thistles did not always have such an unpleasant reputation, nor were they shunned. In ancient times, the thistle was a revered plant, sacred to the believers of mythology. Thistles were regarded as signs from the god of thunder, Thor. Sprays of thistle were once worn by worshipers as protection from evil spirits, especially lightning.

The plant was even transplanted into fields of ripening grain to chase away maligned forces. The prickly thistle has some fame as the national flower of Scotland. It is credited with saving the Scots in 1263 from an invasion by the fearsome Danish Norsemen of that period in history.

Ruthless hordes of the dreaded invaders landed upon the shores of Scotland to take the land by force. Eager for battle, the Danes failed to prepare breastworks to protect their landing boats. Removing their footwear, they attempted a bold tactic of a night attack upon the unsuspecting, sleeping Scots.

The barefoot warriors encountered no problems, until they accidentally discovered the prickly thistles growing in the open fields surrounding the encampments. Startled screams of pain and shock alerted the gallant defenders and a great battle began. On that day, few Norsemen escaped vengeance as the invaders were driven back to the sea.

The thistle has usage in home remedies and self-help medicine. It gained a reputation in the Dark Ages as a remedy for various infectious diseases. Thistles saved Emperor Charlemagne from defeat. The thistle’s roots were made into a healing medicine for his disease-plagued armies, their good health helped to turn the tide of battle to his favor.

Thistle identification

The traditional uses of the thistle have been for food, medicine, and materials. It is one of the easiest of plants to identify; hence, its widespread usage. The thistle is an annual, biennial or perennial herb. It has a fleshy taproot on horizontal or vertical root-stocks, and numerous side roots. Most are spindle-shaped. and may be swollen or filled with fibers. Roots are usually white or may be tinted the color of its soil matrix.

Thistle stems are straight, erect, and may be either branched or unbranched. They may reach upwards to six feet tall, and be covered with white woolly hairs. Stems may be spined or without spines. Cut stems may ooze a clear to whitish-yellow colored sap. The sap has a biting or bitter taste. Stems become hollow at maturity.

Leaves are basal, clustering around the stems. Leaves may or may not have leafstalks or petioles. Each basal leaf is 5 to 10 inches long, lanceolate or spear-shaped, and divided into deep lobes with coarse teeth. Teeth are armed with sharp, stiff spines. The edges of the leaves are wavy in appearance.

Stem leaves differ from basal leaves, are smaller and base-clasping. The leaves alternate around the main stems and may be lobeless and spineless. Fluffs of wispy woolly hair may cover the leaves.

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Flowering stems may be covered with sharp spines, intermixed with the woolly hair. The top of these stems is a vase-like green cup covered with green leaf-like, spiny appendages or bracts.

Flowering stems may be covered with sharp spines, intermixed with the woolly hair. The top of these stems is a vase-like green cup covered with green leaf-like, spiny appendages or bracts.

Flower heads may be in clusters at tops of flowering stems. Superficially, the individual flower head may resemble a brush and is two inches tall and 1 to 3 inches across. The flowers come in a variety of colors ranging from white, pink, yellow, purple to rose-purple.

Each flower head is made up of hundreds of minute tubular or disk flowers held in the cup. Each tubular flower has five deep, narrow lobes. Ray flowers are absent. The nectar is sweet and aromatic.

Fruits are big balls of fluffy white or grayish silk held in the erect cups. Numerous seeds or achenes are small, elliptically shaped, flat, and plumed at tips with seed hairs. Dissemination is by the wind.

Bees, moths, and butterflies can be seen busy at the flower heads of the thistle. Wasps, bumblebees, and stinging ants may also frequent the nectar-filled flowers. Tiny spiders may occupy the flowers, too. Finches and other songbirds eat the seeds and the flowers. Hummingbirds may frequent the flowers for nectar and insects. Also, they will collect the soft seed down for lining their delicately constructed, button-sized nests.

Food Storehouse

Primitive people and those who must live in the under-developed countries of the world have learned by necessity to utilize their environmental resources to its fullest advantage. In a subsistence economy, very little is wasted, including the prickly thistle.

The common thistle is a storehouse of edible food. Virtually all parts, less the spines, can be used for food. It is very useful in survival or wilderness living. Roots, stems, young leaves, flower buds, flower heads, and seeds can be eaten. Historically, the thistle has been credited with helping to save lives in times of scarcity. It was eaten by stressed populations forced by ill winds of fate to subsist off the land.

Roots can be eaten raw or cooked into a table vegetable. They have been used in the past as a tasty turnip substitute in prepared foods. The root can be dried and ground into flour for use as an extender in soups or stews.

Raw roots toasted in an oven at low heat can extract a sugary syrup or molasses. With a slightly bitter taste and a caramelized color, it can be utilized as a sugar substitute.

Peeled and boiled roots can be pickled in brine or soaked in a cinnamon-flavored, cane sugar syrup to make a sweet-meat. In Armenia, these sweat-meats are very popular with the locals as a side dish at traditional feasts or wedding celebrations.

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Flowerless young sterns are peeled off their prickly spines and hard outer-rind filled with fibers, and eaten raw like celery or cooked into a delicious potherb. The peeled stems can be made into an excellent pickle or candied as a treat.

The peeled sterns are considered to be wilderness thirst-quenchers or nibbles by knowledgeable hikers and woodsmen. Sweet and juicy, the sterns can satisfy the driest thirst, providing moisture until a water source is found. Basal and stem leaves can be de-spined with scissors, and eaten raw in salads or cooked as a vegetable. A hot, stimulating tea can be made from young leaves.

Eating the leaves raw is an acquired taste. Only the younger leaves should be used, as the older leaves are unpalatable. In fact, a hot tea made of old or withered leaves has use in wilderness medicine as an emetic to treat mild food poisoning.

Both flower buds and flower heads are edible, cooked and eaten like artichokes which they resemble. Their taste is similar, too. However, for the best results steam first before cooking. Dried flowers are used as rennet to curdle milk, the primary step in making butter, whey, yogurt, and soft cheese. The seeds of the thistle are very bitter if eaten raw. Toasting does improve the flavor. Parched seeds are utilized as a meal or as a cereal substitute. In Northern Europe, thistle seeds are sometimes used in the same manner as sesame seeds in bakery products or as a flavoring in food preparations.

Thistle Medicine

Among herbalists and homeopathic medical practitioners, the thistle is considered to have the following properties: cooling, astringent, sharp-tasting, hemostatic, diuretic, and anti-inflammatory. The thistle has a wide application in the treatment of various ailments. A recent phytochemical analysis of the thistle reveals it to contain several alkaloids, a glycoside, and a flavonoid. Roots and seeds show a high oil content.

A strong root tea is useful in stopping the discomfort of diarrhea, dysentery, and intestinal flu. Crushed root paste can be applied as a poultice to infected sores, earache, boils, and carbuncles. The paste has shown good results in several medical studies.

The dried root bark is sometimes held in the mouth for gum sores, lip cankers or infected tongue. Dried root powder can be utilized as a styptic to stop traumatic bleeding in deep, open wounds. The powder has seen use in this way before the era of the Roman Empire.

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The root powder mixed with water can be used as a douche to prevent uterine bleeding after childbirth. A root-powder tea is ingested to control hematuria, blood in the urine. Hematuria is caused by an infection or may be secondary to a tumor somewhere in the urinary tract.

A dried root decoction (root powder soaked in water for several days to extract the active principle) has use in the treatment of hematemesis. Hematemesis is the vomiting of blood usually associated with an ingested poison or a terminally ill patient. It is also used to ease the pain of acute appendicitis prior to surgical removal.

The fresh young leaves of the thistle can be made into a tea for urinary problems, kidney infections, and bladder complaints. The tea can be utilized as a wash to treat mild burns or infected areas of the skin.

Leaf pastes are applied to muscle pains, neck cramps, and bone fractures. It is especially effective upon compound or open fractures, where the bone has split the skin.

An early Greek method of treating leprous sores involved the thistle. The juice of mashed thistle leaves was mixed with vinegar and applied directly upon the infection. Treatment continued daily until the sores cleared up.

The science backs it up

Modern research has incorporated the thistle leaf extracts to experimental medicine and has shown positive results in the treatment of inflammations, sclerosis, tumors, leprosy, and cancer. Purified extracts have been made into specific drugs in Europe as aids in the treatment of cancer and tumorous conditions.

An antimicrobial study of the thistle leaves shows definite beneficial properties. The active principle was extracted by acetone, alcohol, ether, benzene, or water. it exhibited a natural anti-germ ability by limiting and suppressing the growth of gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria, and upon mycobacteria in cultured media.

These are the germs that have caused so much misery, disease, and death, suffered by mankind since time immemorial. They can be found in the water we drink, sewage, and in the soil.

Bacteria can cause sores, boils, infectious conditions, diarrhea, dysentery, pneumonia, fever, and blood poisoning. The mycobacterium is found in the soil and have been guilty of causing leprosy, tuberculosis, and other bronchial related diseases.

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The flowers and seeds of the thistles have seen use in medicine, too. Flower tea is useful as a wash for infectious sores caused by venereal diseases, specifically gonorrhea, and syphilis. An extract of the flowers is very effective upon yaws, a sexually transmitted tropical infection.

A tea made of raw seed powder ingested daily can remove painful kidney stones from the urinary tract. King Louis XIII of France relied heavily upon this medication and prayer, to cure himself of the affliction.

A raw seed decoction boiled with milk is still in use in Europe to treat infant diarrhea. The thistle has contributed to the lifestyle and to the livelihood of the native peoples who utilize it in their everyday living. In some areas of the world, the lowly prickly thistle is a scarce resource and is greatly sought after for its usefulness.

In the Pyrenees region of Southern France and Northern Spain, it is common to see thistles being utilized as a landscaping plant.

Telling the weather and other benefits of using thistles

Country folk like to hang flowering baskets filled with rooted thistles outside the doors or windows of their homes. The thistles are used as storm-warning indicators. As natural barometers, the blossoms of the thistle have a tendency to droop before an oncoming rain shower or a storm.

As the weather disturbance abates, the stems pick up their vigor and return the flower heads to their erect position. Dried stalks of the thistle are harvested in multitudes for use as thatching of chicken or livestock sheds. The stems can be used as a fuel for cooking or for warming fires. Stripped of spines, the dried stems were once utilized as hand drills to start fires by friction.

The thistle has seen use in warfare. The straight, dried stems can be de-spined and smoothed for use with a bow as flaming arrows. These short-ranged thistle-missiles are aimed at thatched houses, storage huts or soft targets to cause conflagration, disrupting an enemy’s supply of food, weapons, and supportive items.

Making Cordage

The fresh stems contain hard fibers that run parallel from roots to the flower head. Easily pulled by hand from the stems, the fibers can be twisted into a strong twine. The twine is allowed to thoroughly dry for several days before use if it is to last a long time. Larger ropes can be made by plaiting long strands of twine. The ropes are utilized as harnesses, tow cables, and as rigging on the fragile sail-powered fishing boats that typify coastal economies of the Third World.

Even the sails can be made from cloth woven from the fibers of the thistle. Sometimes the tough twine and plaited ropes are made into fishing nets and tackles when other fibers such as hemp or sisal are not available. But before the finished products can be used for fishing, they must be treated to prevent rotting.

The nets and tackles are boiled in a solution made of water and the roots of the leadflower (Phyllanthus) or other plants for an hour or so. In this manner, they are preserved from the effects of continual soaking in seawater.

Sails and sail riggings are normally treated the same way before the boat is made ready to sail. Anchor ropes, lashes, and ties are prepared likewise, too.

Related reading: Making Cordage in the Wilderness

The stem fibers can be woven into a coarse cloth for use as canvas or as ducking. Thick mats, carpets, curtains, and heavy-duty storage bags can be woven from the plaited ropes.

Seed down or hairs are very soft and can be utilized as tinder to catch sparks for starting fires. The hairs are made of pure cellulose and burn readily, as long as they are kept dry. For the best results, the down should be mixed with dried stem fibers or root-bark chips to catch and kindle the flaming sparks.

As noted earlier, the roots and seeds contain a high oil content. A pressure extract of the roots results in a densely saturated oil. The oil can find use as a workshop lubricant, a lamp fuel, or as a base for perfume.

A steam distillation of the seeds releases a light or semi-dry oil. It could find use in the production of paints or in local chemical industries. The thistle has been in use as a flavoring in liqueurs for centuries in Europe and Asia. Easy to make at home, a handful of crushed roots or flowers are added to a half quart of plain brandy and set aside to steep in a sealed bottle.

After steeping for 36 hours, the flavored brandy is mixed with a blend of hot water and honey in equal proportions. The liqueur should be allowed to age for at least two or three weeks in the dark.

Thistle liqueur is utilized as a tonic to stimulate appetite, and as an after dinner cordial. Served over ice, it has a use as a medicine to ease nausea or the spasms of vomiting. In measured dosage, the liqueur is a gentle tranquilizer.

A last word

Remember the prickly thistle when you find yourself in dire need. Learn to recognize it, and you will never be without a friend. It is a ready source of food, drink, medicine, fuel, flavoring, or materials to make all the things essential for survival.

Useful resources to check out:

The Common Vegetable that Will Increase Your Heart Attack Risk at Least Two-Fold

How To Build The Invisible Root Cellar

10 Things Cowboys Carried With Them In The Wild West To Survive

Knowledge to survive any medical crisis situation

The vital self-sufficiency lessons our great grand-fathers left us

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