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  • Ian Thompson

Native Thistle: an Underappreciated Cultural Plant

Over the past couple of weeks, an otherworldy-looking species of thistle has been popping up along the wet areas of the Farmstead. Thistles have a really bad reputation among farmers and ranchers, and it's not just because of this plant's painful thorns. Several aggressive species of thistle imported from Eurasia are invading landscapes across America, causing a staggering $120 billion in damage to crops and natural areas each year. It was only natural for us to eye the thistles coming up on the Farmstead with a healthy amount of suspicion, but in attempting to identify their species yesterday, we learned something.

Depending on how you count them, there are more than 62 species of thistle native to the United States. Thistles first arrived here at least 2 million years ago, and have been rapidly adapting to different parts of the landscape ever since. With a sweeter pollen than most other wildflowers, these thistles are the first choice for a large number of pollinators, including the monarch butterfly, the endangered swamp metalmark butterfly, and a wide variety of native bees. The leaves and buds of native thistle plants feed a number of native insects that become food for other creatures. The fluff from the mature flower heads is picked by birds and used to help hold their nests together.

Our ancestors knew native thistles. The Choctaw name for them is "Shomo". Today, that word is passed down as a last name among some Choctaw families. The most widely known cultural use for the thistle involves the flower heads. The petals turn to fluff upon maturity and literally scatter the plant's seeds to the wind. Our grandfathers harvested these flower heads just before that stage. A dozen or more of them would be artfully fastened between a section of river cane split in half and lashed together to prevent the fluff from flying away. Using a thread, the fluff was skillfully wrapped around the back end of blowgun darts. When a hunter puts the dart in the breech of a rivercane blowgun and puffs, the thistle down catches the air, seals the breech, and propels the dart with a surprising amount of force. The image is a quiver holding some thistle-fletched blowgun darts made by Ian. He has killed squirrels with darts like these.

While we've never come across mention of the thistle being a traditional Choctaw food, there is little doubt that Choctaw cooks have served up this tasty and nutritious plant at some times and places. Native thistles are still considered a cultural food by some Tribes, particularly in the Northwest. Once the spines are removed, the leaves of young thistle plants are edible in the spring, raw or cooked. The young emerging stalks of 2-year old plants can be boiled, peeled, and eaten. Even the deep roots of 2-year-old plants are edible.

This brings us back to the thistles just beginning to flower on the Farmstead. After some research, we were pleased to discover that what we had thought might be an invader is actually a very beneficial native species, C. horridulum, also called "spiny thistle". This species was first identified by naturalist Thomas Nuttail, who traveled across what would become Choctaw country, 11 years before the Trail of Tears. Spiny Thistle produces the pollen of choice for at least 13 species of native bees and a number of butterflies as well. Edible, like other true thistles, it is protected by particularly prolific rows of spikes, which have demonstrably served these plants well when the buffalo are in the pasture with them.

Like many other parts of the American landscape, native thistles are on the decline. They face the double whammy of habitat destruction and the misdirected efforts to eradicate the invasive thistles. Some states have laws requiring property owners to destroy all thistles on their land, even the native ones. Already held in check by the native insects that feed on them, and a different rooting pattern, the native thistles are not able to recover from the damage inflicted on them as quickly as the non-native thistles. As a result, four species of native thistle are endangered; one is expected to go extinct this decade. We hate to admit it, but being conditioned to believe that almost any thistle we saw growing was likely to be invasive, we have knocked down some of these amazing native thistles growing on the Farmstead in years past. That will never happen again. Instead, we're going to start preparing more habitat for them to live in.

For interest, here is a picture of Tall Thistle, another beautiful native species that blooms on the sandy hills of the Farmstead in the early fall.

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