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  • Writer's pictureOrion Aon

Eating Invasive Thistles: How to Forage Musk Thistle

Updated: Jul 9

Thistles can be one of the more frustrating weeds to deal with, especially perennial species. They produce a ton of seeds, often easily spread by the wind, and once established, they are hard to get rid of because of the many sharp spines that cover them. These qualities often lead to them being listed as problematic and invasive weeds in areas that aren’t native. Musk thistle is one of those species. Here in Colorado, it’s considered a List B Noxious weed because it can invade native ecosystems and harm livestock operations (they usually don’t eat it, but it can reduce available forage). Despite that, thistles are wonderful edible plants if you can get around the spines! Eating them, especially populations in our yards or gardens, has been proven to reduce or eliminate their ability to take over. In this post, we will go over how to identify it, where it likes to grow, some potential look-alikes (edible and toxic), and finally, how to harvest and eat it. Let’s learn how to forage musk thistle!


The flowers of musk thistle or nodding thistle, Carduus nutans.
The flowers of musk thistle or nodding thistle, Carduus nutans.

Description


Musk thistle, Carduus nutans, also known as nodding thistle, is a medium to large biennial plant. Its large leaves emerge as a basal rosette from a central taproot. These leaves have deep pinnate lobes and stout spines along their edges. The edges of the lobes also have a white or silvery coloration, which can be a key identifier. The leaf midrib is a lighter green and sometimes has a reddish tint towards the base.


Musk thistle leaves.
Note the silvery edges and reddish coloration at the leaf base.

A flower stalk or multiple stalks emerge from the center of the rosette. The stalks can be two to three inches in diameter and six to eight feet tall. They are similar in color to the leaf midribs and can also have some red tinting. The stalks have leaves as well as spined wings running along their length.


The flower stalk of musk thistle.
The flower stalks can be reddish and have multiple spined wings running their length.

The flowers of musk thistle resemble small artichokes; they are related. The blooms are pink to purple and hang or nod down on their stem, so they also get the name nodding thistle. The flowers eventually turn into fluffy plumes with many small seeds.


Musk thistle flower going to seed.
Musk thistle flower going to seed.

Range & Habitats


Musk thistle is native to Eurasia but has become widespread throughout North and South America and parts of Australia and New Zealand. It is considered an invasive weed in many of these regions. Musk thistle tends to grow in areas of human disturbance but can also become established in native ecosystems where it can outcompete native plants.


In Colorado, musk thistle can be found throughout our elevation bands, from the eastern plains to alpine ecosystems. It’s most common in areas of disturbance, both human disturbance, such as development, and natural disturbances, like fires and floods.


Musk thistle growing on the edge of pasture near a road.
Musk thistle growing on the edge of pasture near a road.

Potential Look-alikes


The information in the description above should be enough to properly identify musk thistle. However, look-alike information is regularly requested, so here are some possible species that could be confused with musk thistle. This list is not comprehensive and may not be relevant to your region. Remember only to eat wild foods once you're 100% confident in your identification and comfortable with trying something new.

  • Other species of thistle. All species in Carduus, Onopordum, Silybum, and Cirsium are safe to eat.

  • Sow thistle, Sonchus species, have white sap. Many are also edible.

  • Tumble mustard, Sisymbrium species, can have similar-looking leaves but lack spines. They are also edible.

  • Prickly poppy, Argemone polyanthemos. These have white poppy-like flowers and are toxic. Their leaves have white or silver coloration along the veins not the edges.


A handful of tumble mustard leaves.
Spineless tumble mustard leaves.
 

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Edibility & Foraging Musk Thistle


The trick with eating thistles is getting around the spines! The easiest way I know is to juice the leaves and tender stalks. This can be done with a juicer that will separate the pulp and spines for you or in a blender, requiring a cheesecloth strain to remove the spines. This juice is claimed to be nutrient-rich, but it tastes like you would expect. Bitter, vegetal, thistly. It is best to be used as an additive to other drinks or dishes. Some ideas come to mind as I write this. It could be fermented into thistle soda or beer, used to add flavor and color to soups or stews, or boiled with sugar into thistle syrup. These are all ideas that I have yet to try, but I’ll report back once I do try them.


Two musk thistle flower stalks.
These young flower stalks could be juiced or blended and strained to extract the thistle juice.

The flower stalks are my favorite part to eat from musk thistle. They are best harvested when the stalks are actively growing before they flower. Once in flower, the stalk can become hollow and tough. To harvest, use a knife and gloves to cut away all of the leaves on the stalks. Cut the stalk away from the plant at the base and strip away the spined wings and any remaining leaves. Then, peel it using the same knife or your teeth. The inner stalk (pith) tastes like a mix of cucumber, celery, and melon. The peeled stalks make great cucumber-like pickles but can also be eaten raw or cooked.


Peeled flower stalks of musk thistle.
Once peeled the flower stalks taste like a mix of cucumber, celery, and melon.

Finally, the flowers are edible as well. They can be cooked and peeled like tiny artichokes. The flowers can also be used to make rennet for cheese making, but I’ve read that it takes a large amount of flowers and is labor intensive.


An immature flower bud of musk thistle.
The immature flowers of musk thistle can be cooked, peeled, and eaten like artichoke.

Foraging Calendar


To learn more about the best seasons to harvest this species and many other wild foods, check out my Foraging Calendar & Wild Food Database! You can try the demo version to learn more, and join my Patreon to gain full access to the Foraging Calendar and other exclusive perks! Joining is the best way to support all the work I put into my content and website to help you learn about foraging! Thank you for checking it out!


A screenshot of my Foraging Calendar.


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