I first ate Edible Thistle (Cirsium edule) a few days after my 15th birthday while hiking with my Boy Scout Troop. Each year we spent a week on a “high adventure,” and this particular year we were hiking through the Glacier Peak Wilderness up the Suiattle River, over Cloudy Pass, to Holden Village near Lake Chelan. Already a plant nut, I was packing a few plant field guides with me and was having a blast seeing many montane species for the first time. The other Scouts were probably annoyed when I held up the group to drop my pack and pull out some library books so that I could identify the magical looking Candystick. Or again, when I stopped in a sunny meadow to dig up the roots of Edible Thistle for my first taste. Ill prepared, I clawed at the dry rocky soil with a fallen limb until I exposed enough of the taproot to get my hands around it and pull it out. I peeled both the shoot and the root and conciliatorily offered samples to my waiting friends. On account of the fibrous stem and woody root, we all quickly spit them out.
Two decades and several other thistle species later, I have finally returned to this plant and have a very different story to tell. This plant is actually delicious and could even be called Incredible Thistle! In my book, it is the best in its class.
Edible Thistle (Cirsium edule) is a tap rooted biennial that sometimes persists for more than two years before flowering and dying. First year leaves form a basal rosette. All leaves have soft hairs on both surfaces and planar to undulating margins with 5-10 pairs of well-spaced, spine-tipped lobes.The whitish central vein tapers towards the leaf tip. The flowering stem is hairy, but lacks spines, and ranges from 0.5-1.25” (1-3cm) wide and 2-4’ (60-120cm) tall; it may or may not be branched. Stem leaves are similar to the basal leaves and they join the stem at a 45-60° angle, arising alternately up the stock getting smaller towards the top. A clump of flower 1-several flower heads is evident at the top of the shoot early in the summer. As the shoot grows, the lateral flower heads space out and grow pedicels (stalks) from the leaf axils while the terminal flower heads remained clustered. Heads are ½-1.5” (1.5-3.5cm) wide and slightly longer than wide. They are covered with white wooly hairs and long spines. Generally, the flowers open in the mid-late summer and are bright purple or occasionally pink or white.
In the northern half of its range, Edible Thistle is found in subalpine and alpine meadows. I usually see them on steep south facing slopes on scree, with grass, or with herbaceous plants, but not normally with heather. In the southern half of its range, the plant is also found at lower elevations near the coast.
The Nlaka‘pamux (Thompson) ate the large white taproots of first year plants in the fall. Like Camas, Balsamroot, (and Jerusalem Artichokes) the roots contain high concentrations of in an indigestible carbohydrate called inulin. When properly cooked, this inulin caramelizes and turns black as it breaks down into sweet tasting fructose. Some inulin must remain in even the cooked roots, because Nlaka‘pamux consultants report that the plants often give you gas, and their name for the plant is derived from the word “flatulate” (Turner et al. 1990).
Lewis and Clark learned how the Native Americans near Fort Clatsop harvested and prepared thistle roots when they overwintered on the Pacific Coast in 1805-1806. They wrote. “Whenfirst taken from the earth it is white, and nearly as crisp as a carrot; in this state it is sometimes eaten without any preparation. But after it is prepared by the same process used for the pashshequo quamash [Camas Camassia quamash], which is the most usual and the best method, it becomes black and much improved in flavor. Its taste is exactly that of sugar, and it is indeed the sweetest vegetable employed by the Indians. After being baked in the kiln it is eaten either simply or with train-oil; sometime it is pounded fine and mixed with cold water, until it is reduced to the consistence of sagamity [hominy], or Indian mush, which last method is the most agreeable to our palates (Coues 1893).”
The shoots are also traditionally pealed and eaten by the Quileute and Hoh (Reagan 1934).
|Jenna enjoying a peeled Edible Thistle stalk
|To eat, the stems of Edible Thistle should be harvested in the late spring and early summer before the flower heads break open and reveal the flowers. Once the flowers start to open, the thistle stalks become too fibrous to eat. If you have tender hands, you may want to wear gloves, but I find the spines to be weaker and easier to avoid than those of Bull Thistle (C. vulgare) and pick bare handed without too much pain. Use a sharp knife to cut the stem near the base and peel off the skin from the base towards the tip. The spiny leaves should come off with the skins, but it is easy to miss small strips of the hairy skin. These can be scraped off with the edge of a knife. I enjoy leaving the wooly flower heads on the top of the shoot; like prawn tails, they are a fun reminder of what you are eating. Thistles stalks are so good fresh that I can’t imagine eating them any other way. Similar to celery, they are juicy and stringy, but I find the fibers finer, the flesh firmer, and the flavor sweeter. Unlike celery, I find thistle shoots filling.
My experience with the roots are still too limited to meaningfully report, so stay tuned.