Dear Aunty Thistledown,

After a tough drought, then flood, then possibly drought again I have inadvertently taken up mono-cropping. I have the thickest stand of pure organic thistles you have ever seen.

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After a tough drought, then flood, then possibly drought again I have inadvertently taken up mono-cropping. I have the thickest stand of pure organic thistles you have ever seen. Given these damn things are so willing to grow during trying times, I think we should try harder to find a market for them.

Can you eat thistles?


Prickly Chomper

Dear Prickly,

In four short words, you have sent me on a collision course with cannibalism.

Yes you can eat thistles. In fact, you probably have already eaten thistles.

Artichokes are simply thistles that have been bred to have big, tasty heads.

Puha, of puha and pork fame, is also a culinary thistle (called milk or sow thistle elsewhere on the planet). And thistles have been a source of rennet for cheesemaking for at least a couple of thousand years.

Sunflowers are also part of the extended thistle family, but those beautiful bastards have risen well above their station.

I expect you are referring to the Californian and Scotch thistles which have a “give an inch, take a mile” approach to farmland. Yes, you can eat them too. In terms of safety, the only thing getting in your way are the thorns.

Every part of every species of thistle is edible raw or cooked. The roots, the leaves, the stems and the seed heads are all considered fair game by the foraging community.

Nettles, dandelions, burdock, gorse and many other prickly things are also edible (note: edible and palatable are two different things), so in the unlikely event that you cannot correctly identify a thistle, you will probably still stay upright. If you need extra help not accidentally poisoning yourself with hemlock or hogweed, then you can download a phone app like Pl@ntNet and point your camera at any plant to identify it.

I went to the Google machine and typed in “thistle recipes” the first hit was for a whisky and sherry based cocktail. That did make the thought of thistle cuisine easier to bear.

The internet said you can consider the thistle roots as a substitute for parsnip, the stems as celery, the leaves as spinach and the flowers as artichoke. So we went out into the garden and pulled up a couple of young Californian thistles, rinsed them off, and started tentatively nibbling.

Yes the roots and stems taste like stringy parsnip and celery. The troops, who have never been keen on the name-brand versions of either of those two vegetables, threatened a mutiny. The leaves were a surprise, they had a very mild and agreeable taste like a fresh baby spinach.

Don’t ask me how, but it is possible to bite a chunk of leaf straight off the plant and chew it up and the thorns don’t hurt your mouth. Prickles hurt the skin, but not the mouth or lips. I guess the same could be said for a hot cup of tea. You wouldn’t pour that on your legs, but your mouth is fine with it.

So now everyone in the family has a new and alarming party trick. Note we are talking about Californian thistles here, raw Scotch thistle leaves are akin to eating crushed velvet that can fight back.

We tried a few spinach-inspired recipes with the Californian thistle leaves. Blitzed in the blender for a smoothie etc and, yes, two thumbs up.

We have briefly considered putting the leaves in salads and sandwiches.but we have to be mindful of the innocent onlookers who view this as a cry for help. The world was barely ready for the thistle lemonade that we made and that was literally just thistle juice with honey and lemon.

“Is there some medicinal benefit to doing this?” they asked. “Do you need us to get you a supermarket voucher?” they ventured.

Taking apart the heads of the Scotch thistles to get to the mini artichokes inside was far too much admin for my liking. I was happy to leave those to the horses and sheep, but was outvoted by the tenacious curiosity of a child who enthusiastically presented me with a bowl of thistle heads decapitated with craft scissors.

They were delicious boiled and then fried in butter. They tasted like fried field mushrooms, or possibly just fried butter on an inoffensive tasting platform. This might be what artichokes taste like. Nobody was certain. We will find out for sure when the child’s new artichoke crop comes to fruition.

Aunty Thistledown.

  • Cali Thistledown lives on a farm where all the gates are tied together with baling twine and broken dreams. While she rarely knows what day it is, she has a rolodex of experts to call on to get the info you need. She’s Kiwi agriculture’s agony aunt. Contact our editor if you have a question for her