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One man's weed is another man's lunch

By Christopher Andreae / April 21, 1999



Once upon a time there was Nurse Elizabeth's thistle. Marvelous to behold (if difficult to say). But that was on a summer's afternoon.

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Now it is nothing but fibrous brown stalks, wan and palely loitering.

I say "Nurse Elizabeth's thistle." But even when tall and splendid in August, with its fierce foliage and bristling violet flowers tufting out of thorny husks, it was only half hers. It was not exactly inside her plot, but in the grass at its entrance. Allotment rules require her to keep this bordering no man's land tidy. And, except for the thistle rampant, she did.

"I should cut it down, really," she murmured unconvincingly. I suspect she liked the thistle. (She is Scottish, so maybe it's like a Welshman with a leek at his gate, or a Mississippian with a magnolia.)

Anyway, she never has felled this vegetative rogue. It flourished on into autumn, fluffing up its white seeds and dispersing them by timely wind-puff. Thistledown is an airy nothing, and gardeners might be enchanted by it were it not that every last one of its ethereal, wafted seeds, falling on good, bad, or indifferent ground, inevitably becomes another thistle.

Turn the corner into the lateral path just along from Elizabeth's plot, and about four plots down on the right is one recently dug over. But already the surface of this hopeful patch of earth has more shooting thistle plants in it than a gaggle has geese. I feel grim sympathy for the plotter (whose name I do not know). He cannot be pleased.

Most gardeners rightly number thistles among the least welcome of weeds.

They root deep. They are hard to eradicate because their roots craftily combine tough with brittle. They will grow absolutely anywhere, and their porcupine defenses would pierce heavy armor.

Plotter George Boyle walked by as Elizabeth and I talked that summer afternoon, and her thistle-in-its-prime caught his eye.

"Shepherds eat them," he announced.

"You're joking." I had never heard of such a thing. I have always thought of them as preternaturally good for nothing. Mere Eeyore food.

But George's insistence had me starting to believe him. He said the farmers out on the moorland cook the flower heads. The cooking softens the prickles, and then they may be chewed with equanimity.

It is true that globe artichokes and cardoons are members of the thistle tribe, and different parts of them are acceptably converted into hot cuisine. But common Cirsium vulgare (presumably Elizabeth's tongue-twister) edible? Seems incredible.

However, it turns out that Mrs. M. Grieve's "A Modern Herbal" says thistle florets were eaten "in earlier times," and Richard Mabey's "Flora Britannica" agrees that most thistles have been "human food at some time." So George may be right historically.

AT THE GLASGOW Book Fair this weekend, I nosed out a book called "Wild Foods of Britain." Compiled by Jason Hill when "circumstances" made "some things hard to get" (the "circumstances" being otherwise known as Adolf), it discusses the food potential of overlooked weeds.

"Sorrel turnovers" and "nettle puree" are recommended. Pickled elder buds are suggested as substitutes for capers. Tansy for ginger. Lady Smock for pepper. We are told that "badderlocks" are eaten raw in Scotland. That "the blewit" is "a meaty mushroom." That ground elder has "a delicate flavor" and that "gardeners" will eat this infamous weed "with vindictive satisfaction." And so on.

But nowhere in this revealing little treatise can I discover the slightest hint of highland shepherds gorging on thistles circa 1939. I already knew that in 1999, lowland nurses preferred boiled turnip.

*A weekly series about a municipal garden in Glasgow, Scotland.