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The Bull Thistle Plant: Is it Just a Weed?

Updated on December 1, 2011

About the Bull Thistle

Although commonly seen, the bull thistle is a plant with a history that remains unfamiliar to many, and to others it is considered a weed that grows wild (see photo). Not native to the USA, it has been naturalized and has since been found to have many benefits.

Below is a Q & A list about the bull thistle plant:

What is the origin of the bull thistle?

Native to Eurasia, the bull thistle is now naturalized in the United States, and is considered an aggressive weed because one mature plant can produce thousands of seeds.

How about a description?

The prickly bull thistle (cirsium vulgare) is a biennial plant that belongs to the asteraceae (sunflower) family. The bull thistle has pink to purple flowers, with fruit also known as thistledown. The small seeds (which are carried by the wind) are called achene.

Where does it grow wild?

The bull thistle generally grows in pastures, gardens, along trails and roadsides, and in waste areas.

How has bull thistle been beneficial?

Used as a warm medicinal tea, the First People used different parts of the plant. The roots were used as an aid to digestion, and to treat stomach cramps. Steam from the warm tea was used to treat muscle stiffness and rheumatism. Leaves were used to treat neuralgia, and the fresh flowers were chewed to cover the medicinal tastes.

Is bull thistle eaten today?

When bull thistle root is cooked it tastes much like the Jerusalem artichoke. The flower stems and the leaves can be cooked and eaten as a vegetable that is similar to spinach. The leaves can also be used raw in a salad. Flower stalks can be eaten like celery or cooked like asparagus. The seeds are also edible and can be roasted.

What about for wildlife?

Bull thistle leaves are eaten by the white-tailed deer and eastern cottontails. Nectar from the flower is eaten by bees, butterflies, and the ruby-throated hummingbird. Seeds are eaten by small mammals and many types of birds, including the dark-eyed Junco, and the American goldfinch. Shelter is also provided for animals including the Carolina chickadee.

Additionally, sheep and goats can graze on bull thistles. Horses can eat the flowers before they go to seed.

Any other uses?

Down from the bull thistle can be used to make tinder, and is easily lit by a spark.

For information on native trees, and more, see links below:

That familiar weed.
That familiar weed.

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    • WannaB Writer profile image

      Barbara Radisavljevic 4 years ago from Templeton, CA

      This looks mighty like the thistle I've been pulling all week, and I can't imagine anyone putting a raw leaf in his mouth. I have to wear gloves to pull this out of the ground because they are so prickly to touch. Maybe I'm dealing with California thistle after all, not bull thistle. I'll have to do further ID.

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 6 years ago from the short journey

      Tastes like Jerusalem artichoke and I've been pulling up throughout the summers?! Thanks for the info!

    • GreenThumbLady profile image

      GreenThumbLady 6 years ago from The Beautiful Earth

      Wow...see...even weeds can be beneficial. It's so unfortunate that people label something as a "weed" without knowing its full potential! I love this hub..learned something I did not know!

    • TheListLady profile image

      TheListLady 6 years ago from New York City

      Wow! So that is what it is called - these were just all over our little parks when I was growing up. And they can be kind of sharp around the edges. Your hub was very informative - thanks so much for writing about the benefits. Everything has a purpose.

      Rated up.

    • BkCreative profile image

      BkCreative 6 years ago from Brooklyn, New York City

      Oh, it is familiar! When I but a youth playing in the parks - these plants were everywhere - and yes, they were called weeds. And yet another plant that is not native. Who thinks of this stuff to just bring plants from your homeland and then destroy another's environment?

      Well, at least the First People made use of it.

      Your hub is a reminder that we must bring back the native plants which will grow easier, provide food for the native animals and perhaps wipe out the intruders.

      Great hub and rated up!