Cirsium arvense (4)

Thistles, Cirsium spp.

Family: Asteraceae, the Aster Family

Description: Non-native small herbaceous plants. Leaves lobed with sharp spines.

Abundance: Common

Habitat: Generally of fields and lawns

Plant Parts Used: Leaves

Food: Edible leaves

Medicine: Detoxifying, blood-cleansing

Children tend to garner an early hatred for thistles when running around lawns barefoot and stepping on the sharp leaves. I certainly had my fair share of childhood foot injuries due to these short, spiny plants. However, I will never forget my first experience with thistle as something other than a rude weed. In the ethnobotany seminar I took with Frank Cook, I remember him explaining to all of us that thistle leaves are a delicious edible as he reached down, grabbed a large leaf, and stuffed it in his mouth. We all noticed the slight twitch in his left eye when he first chewed on that leaf. We also noticed the pinpricks of blood on his tongue when he promptly took the rest of the leaf out of his mouth. The moral of the story there, he told us, is that yes, thistle leaves are quite edible, but if eaten raw, they must be consumed when they are young or cooked like spinach or kale to soften the spines when they are older. Patti prefers the latter method; she enjoys cooking with the leaves. Ray also said that these leaves can be a tasty salad green “if you skin it and chew it like celery.” Native Americans across North America have eaten the young shoots and stems, sometimes considered a “luxury food.” Medicinally, Ray told me that consuming thistles helps cleanse the blood. Patti also described them as good liver detoxifiers, sometimes even sold in capsule form.

Note: This post is part of my Plants and People series. See my Plants and People page for more information about the project and the people referenced in this post.


  • Chilton, Patti. Telephone interview. 31 Oct. 2010.
  • Michener, Martin C. Botany Everywhere: Woods, Field, Home, and Garden Plants of NE USA, Third Edition. Hollis, NH: MIST Software Associates, Inc., 2009. PDF.
  • Mittelhauser, Glen H., Linda L. Gregory, Sally C. Rooney, and Jill E. Weber. The Plants of Acadia National Park. Orono, Me.: University of Maine, 2010. Print.
  • Moerman, Daniel. “Native American Ethnobotany: A Database of Foods, Drugs, Dyes and Fibers of Native American Peoples, Derived from Plants.” UM-Dearborn College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters. Web. 14 Dec. 2010. <;.
  • Reitze, Raymond and Nancy. Personal interview. 8, 15 Oct. 2010.