Calling all thistles!

“What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson (quote extracted from this Mother Earth News article)

In a July 2 article “Top myths about noxious weeds” Irene Shonle (the Gilpin County Director of the CSU Extension office) makes a passionate and well-supported attempt to debunk many common misconceptions about noxious weeds in Colorado. I definitely agree that not all weeds are wonderful – I’m still researching any potential benefits of Scentless Chamomile, with no luck. It is certainly true that “scentless chamomile has none of the properties of Roman or German chamomiles.” However, did you know that Pineapple Weed (not classified as a “noxious weed” in Colorado, but prolific enough!) has the same medicinal properties of German Chamomile and can be safely used as a flavoring, a calming tea and even crushed, dried, burned or added to potpourri for it’s delightful fragrance!

Don’t get me wrong: I understand the ecological threat posed by noxious weeds (never mind the fact that noxious weeds like thistles are experts at carbon fixation – pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and converting it into energy): they poison the soil, their roots push out all other native plants, they destroy the natural biodiversity diminishing our native pollinators and rare Colorado wildflower populations (not to mention that every county is mandated by the state to implement and enforce noxious weed controls). All I’m asking is that we give the whole situation a little space in our hearts before we slash, burn and spray a whole field of thistles, mullein, or sage.

“Hi there, Ms. Weed. Isn’t it a beautiful, summer afternoon in the Colorado Rockies? …yes, I think so, too. I understand why you love living here…just like me. Now that you mention it, I’m not native either. My ancestors came from Sweden and Wales, and they probably brought the first seeds of your ancestors with them, too! Your children and grandchildren and cousins and nieces and nephews are all thriving here in this field. In fact, it seems that your species prefer ground that has been disturbed by urban development and lots of traffic – wow! We have so much in common!

“Are you good medicine? Teach me your ways, come home with me. Hang out in my kitchen for a while and we’ll share a cup of tea.”

This is how I approach all plants – especially the one’s I’m still getting to know like thistle. Now, in Colorado we have several kinds of thistles, all of which are considered “noxious” and, according to Ms. Shonle have “no medicinal properties.” Let’s take a closer look at some of the most prolific thistles in Colorado:

Cursed, creeping, Canada thistle (cirsium arvense)

According to this Wikipedia article, the roots, leaves and stems of this thistle are edible (best when well steamed or boiled to soften the spines). Note the bulbous shape to the flowering head and the multiple flowers branching out from a single stem.

No mention of the most sought-after sylimarin, extracted from the seeds of Blessed or Milk thistle for it’s amazing liver-healing and re-generating properties. But that doesn’t make this weed completely useless. The popular health website Livestrong cites some compelling scientific evidence for the medicinal benefits of Canada Thistle:

“North American Indians used infusions and extracts of Canadian thistle root for mouth diseases and infections and considered it to be useful as a health promoting tonic, diuretic and astringent, according to “Medical Herbalism: The Science Principles and Practices of Herbal Medicine.” Its leaves can also be chewed to relieve the pain of toothaches, cancer sores and sore throats, as they have anti-inflammatory properties. If swallowed, the juice of the roots is purportedly effective at killing intestinal parasites and reducing the symptoms of poison ivy and gastritis. Canadian thistle should not be confused with milk thistle, which is a well-known herbal remedy for liver conditions. They look similar, but milk thistle contains different compounds in its leaves and roots.”

Spear, Bull, Common – cirsium vulgare

Unlike the Canada thistle, Bull Thistle propagates only by seed so it is not necessary to dig up every last taproot to keep it from spreading. The do share a strong bitter taste when the leaves, stems or roots are boiled and eaten. They are a favorite of local bees and butterflies, and ants relish the inner part of the thick stems. Still no definitive mention of any medicinal properties, but this herbalist claims an infusion prepared from fresh or dried thistle leaves helps reduce varicose veins. It is also common knowledge that artichoke is a thistle in it’s own right, boasting antioxidants, folate, fiber and Vitamins C and K.

Cotton and Scotch: onopordum acanthium

This thistle might be one of the hardiest, most drought resistant, fastest spreading and hardest to get rid of thistles of them all. The Wikipedia entry for onopordum acanthium states “an entire colony can ruin a pasture or destroy a park or campsite, sometimes forming tall, dense, impenetrable stands.”

It may also have the most versatile applications of all thistles: the fluffy seeds can be pressed for cooking and burning oil and stuffed into pillows. The leaves, stems and flowers have been boiled, dried, and tinctured for centuries as folk remedies for ulcers, mucous discharges and in treating certain cancers. (Cited from M. Grieve (1971). A Modern Herbal: The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folk-Lore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs & Trees with Their Modern Scientific Uses. New York: Dover Publications.)

Carduus nutans aka nodding, plumeless, musk thistle

Aha! Now THIS is what I’ve got growing all over my Homestead on the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies. I trip on it, I stumble through it…I watch the bumblebees dancing on it’s feathery purple plumes, I wonder at the black lines of ants chewing happily away at the leaves and stems, I marvel at the chipmunks delicately dancing their way to the top of a 4 or 5 foot stem to snatch off the large, blossoming flower for lunch!

I have used an infusion of freshly picked leaves to increase my milk supply when I was breastfeeding AND as an effective form of birth control (vis The Childbearing Year by Susun Weed) and I’ve successfully – safely, quickly and with no side-effects – treated gallstones at home with a tincture of the flowering tops. (Read my article “Oh my aching gallbladder!“)

Am I making this up, or is there supportive evidence to illustrate the wonderful, medicinal and nutritional properties of Musk Thistle? “Medicinally, musk thistle leaves and seeds are useful as a bitter tonic to stimulate liver function.” (from Wildflowers and Weeds, article by renowned conservationist, author and educator Thomas J. Elpel).

In fact, all bitter greens are considered good for increasing nutrient absorption, tonifying the liver and gallbladder and strengthening digestion. Wild bitters like thistle, clover, lambsquarter and dandelion have higher levels of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants than cultivated varieties. Using the entire plant preserves the symbiotic energy of the plant giving your body the full-spectrum benefit of roots, leaves, stems and flowers. (Here’s an excellent resource for understanding the difference between “whole herbs” and “standardized extracts”

Mother nature knows more than we do, for sure. Whole plant medicine as our (not so distant) ancestors practiced is a well-spring of common sense and wisdom.

Thank you, Irene Shonle, for inspiring deeper research into one of my favorite topics. I am still proud and confident in perpetuating the “myth” that “noxious weeds are medicinal plants”!

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