If you collect wild plants or work in the garden from time to time I guess you made your unlikely experiences with this spiky plant. But as hollyhock, stinging nettle and orache are suitable for salads, green juices and green smoothies the same is true for thistles. I admit that for now I never used thistle in a salad, because to remove all the spikes seems like a lot of lot of work to me, but I used this powerful plant in green smoothies and juices frequently.
Origin and Usage
Thistles are, like as many other wild plants, spurned as weeds. But connoisseurs have clear, that these plants are important indicators for nutrient dense soils. We call thistles wild plants with spiky leaves, but botanically seen all species rely to the subfamily Carduoideae of the family Asteraceae. The origin of the name is indo-german means “to thrust” or “spiky”.
The original area of dissemination were the warm regions around the mediterranean sea, however meanwhile this plant family feels home in many regions of planet earth. You can find thistles in dry areas of North America as well as in the chilly north of Scotland.
In natural medicine thistles are used since a long time as a supportive treatment to cure diverse diseases. A tea, juice or a cold extract through maceration relaxes and calms the nerves. A Tea made out of the root supports the healing of different lung diseases such bronchitis, asthma and cough. The latex of the stem is used to cure eye infections, skin cancer, warts and moles.
Milk Thistle as medicine for the liver
Any part of the thistles can be used in the kitchen somehow and all of the thistles are edible. Milk Thistles make little fruits and their extract is used to help the liver regenerate itself. They contain different flavonolignans which build the complex Silymarin. This complex catches free radicals which occur when the liver detoxes. It protects cell walls from being destroyed and actually helps them to regenerate.
Nutrients in comparison
The following chart compares minerals and vitamins of an iceberg lettuce and thistles. In vitamins there is only one big difference in vitamin A. This is the only nutrient in which the iceberg lettuce is much more richer than the wild plant. In all other cases there contain the same amount or thistles are richer.
Thistles are best gathered with scissors* or garden shears* and a pair of sturdy but not stiff work gloves*. In many cases very young and tender leaves can be gathered with bare hands. Most of the time I collect 20 to 40 leaves which are as long as my hand and seldom I go for one or two whole stems. When I gather I keep in mind to harvest only up to the half of a plant, because I want that the plant can continue to grow and spread it seeds.
Usage in kitchen
As I wrote in the beginning of the article, the plant can also be used directly in a salad if you remove all spikes from the leaves. In general I use thistles in green juices or green smoothies. If I make a very strong juice with 40 leaves, a small cucumber and 2 carrots, I crank for 10 min with my manual juicer*. The pure thistle juice I dilute in a ratio of 1:4 with water, otherwise it is to strong. Blending a green smoothie is even faster, but if you want to make sure that you don’t taste any spikes you need a powerful blender* with at least 28.000 rmp. I highly recommend to drink the juice as soon as possible, because it will loose a lot of nutrients through oxidation. If you blend thistles with fruit you can keep the smoothie for several hours up to two days in the fridge without significant loss through oxidation. This is so because the smoothie still contains the fiber of the greens which hinders the oxidation. If you want to know more about this you can have a look at Victoria Boutenko’s book Green Smoothie Revolution* in which she describes an experiment on oxidation of juices and smoothies.
I hope I could expand your point of view about thistles. As soon as the spring starts in the middle of Europe you can gather without doubts some leaves of this powerful plant. For the beginning I recommend to start with a very small amount, because the taste will be unusual strong.
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Title: Carlina acaulis, Fiescheralp, Schweiz; Author: Fritz Geller-Grimm; Licence: This work is licensed under Creative-Commons-License „Namensnennung – Weitergabe unter gleichen Bedingungen 3.0 nicht portiert“.
Mairendistel in Blüte: milk_thistle_flowerhead; Author: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos; License: Attribution NonCommercial Unported 3.0