In spring, gardens and flowerbeds are transformed into immaculately manicured arrangements of botanicals in all colors, sizes and textures. I’d like to boast that my backyard could be described this way, but I’d be lying. Fortunately, spring also provides a spectacular array of wildflowers to make up for those of us disinclined to plant ordered ornamentals everywhere. I know. If that tendency weren’t bad enough to revoke my Master Gardener privileges, here’s a confession that surely will… One of my favorite spring ‘wildflowers’ that always appears in my backyard* is the Yellow Thistle.
Justifying my affection for these prickly beasts is the subject of today’s blog post.
Its Latin name is Cirsium horridulum, and it does, frankly live up to its horrible name in appearance. I know the first sight of their spiky rosettes sends suburban homeowners running for the RoundUp, but there is something wickedly beautiful about these plants. At least, from a distance. On other people’s property, maybe.**
Everything about them screams, “Stay away. Don’t touch!” But I am drawn in close to the fuzzy flowers. The new blooms are like velvet in shades of pink and purple, and then fade to yellow as they are pollinated. I am not the only one. Butterflies, bees, other insects, even some hummingbirds are attracted to these flowers for their nectar. The seeds are rich in oil and an important food source for seed-eating birds.
Their sharp spines are clearly effective on soft-mouthed herbivores like most mammalian wildlife and pasture animals. Generally, humans stay away as well, but some know that the stalks are edible- tasty even. Don’t just start sautéing down the spiny leaves like spinach. It’s the stalks you’re after. If left alone and given enough nutrients, yellow thistles can grow to impressive heights (~6 ft), but choose shorter specimens for the most tender texture. They’ve been described as having a flavor akin to celery, but better. I, personally, have never tried them, but know it as a tradition of my grandparents’ childhood.*** Check out these links for more on edible thistles.
Thistles will probably never become incorporated into the landscaping plans of most suburban neighborhoods. But, now, when you see them in a roadside ditch or pastureland, maybe you can at least appreciate them for their functions even if you can’t embrace the aesthetics of their form.
*Don’t think suburban backyard, think homestead with a lot of pastureland. Thistles are perfectly acceptable in my homestead’s HOA agreement.
**Bonus points to you, dear reader, if you may be of the same generation to now have a certain early 90’s rap song ear bug.
***I’ve never been adventurous enough or in a survival situation needing to rely on them. Although it’s good to know that I could. Or at least, that I have a head start on a crop of them on my property if they ever become popular in American cuisine. (Alternative science career possibility: thistle farmer. I should write that down.) Truth be known, wild blackberries are ripening at the same time of year as thistles are sprouting, and I’ll take blackberries over thistles anything any day of the week and twice on Sunday.
Photo credits: Johnna Roose, all rights reserved
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