Bull thistle sure is tough like a bull


You’ve probably seen that tall spiny plant with purple flowers along the roadside. Sometimes the flowers are yellow. It’s called bull thistle and related to the artichoke. Playing ball in a pasture field teaches kids to learn to identify this one in a hurry. Fall or step on it once and you’ll pay more attention the next time.

True bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare) is a biennial. It produces basal rosettes of leaves the first year along with a thick taproot. The second season it sometimes attains heights of six feet. Despite the diminutive stature of the first year foliage, spines at midribs and tips of leaf lobes are still just as aggressive as older specimens. The yellow flowered type (Cirsium horridulum), sometimes called yellow thistle or horrid thistle is an annual. When you look at the spines you can see where the horridulum came from.

These spiny menaces grow best in sunny areas and thrive in most types of soil. Thistles are a problem in overgrazed pastures, because seeds take advantage of any available bare soil. Bull thistle can be problematic on forest clear cuts too. Plants grow fast and can shade out young tree seedlings. Seeds can remain dormant but still viable for several years.

Fortunately, the only reproduction is by seed. There are no tubers, rhizomes or other vegetative structures. However, the seed is prolific and gets spread by wind, much like dandelions. Sometimes huge clouds of thistledown spread seeds great distances.

This plant can be quite invasive and is considered a noxious weed in most states. An exotic species, bull thistle is originally from Eurasia. Flowers emerge in summer and it’s best not to let them mature unless your goal is to attract finches. They love the seed.

Controlling bull thistle by non-chemical means usually involves some type of physical protection. I’ve hand weeded them, but I always use welder’s gloves and wear long pants and long sleeves. Even then it can be a struggle because the roots are often large. Once plants flower they are easier to pull, but you’re playing with fire if the seed is mature.

On larger areas it can be kept under control by mowing it regularly so it can’t set seed. That still won’t solve your problems if you or your children like to walk barefooted. Numerous herbicides will kill it also, but on pastures they also can damage desirable species. In lawns they are rarely a problem. Always read the label thoroughly.

Believe it or not bull thistle can be a valuable survival food. In their first year roots are edible and when cooked they strongly resemble Jerusalem artichoke. If you’re inclined to try them, take a shovel and cut the tops off before digging the roots. Once roots reach their second year they become too woody to eat.

According to many sources, young leaves make a fair cooked green. The spikiness gets tempered by cooking, but collecting them would not be a pleasant experience. Some even recommend using young leaves in salads. That almost seems like joke to me. I’ve never consumed bull thistle foliage raw or cooked, but then again I’ve never been starving to death either.

Yellow bull thistle plant. I’ve been waiting to find some decent pictures before posting this.

Close-up of yellow bull thistle

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I now teach agriculture to high school students at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, NC. My wife teaches with me and we make a great team. I also write a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com) and frequently publish articles in several other newspapers in northeastern North Carolina. I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that I plan to publish eventually. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone, a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. Never Alone is now available in paperback, Kindle and Nook. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death. In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books.
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One Response to Bull thistle sure is tough like a bull

  1. joanneeddy says:

    Hi Ted, I have a backyard full of mostly weeds here in Willow Spring….and quite a few varieties! I’ve dug out a bunch of thistle…Another weed I dug out had a root that looked sort of like parsnips, really HUGE, thick and deep! And wild onion….oh, my! Tried to eat some of that but the white parts can be woody. Say hello to Roberta for me! Joanne

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