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Commentary by Evelyne Vandersande
| Thursday, May 25, 2017
 

If you come into a crowded room and start loudly expressing your political views, you can expect the tone of the conversation will go up, arguments will be coming from all directions, faces are going to get red … it could turn ugly.

If you enter the room and throw a few religious statements in the same manner, the reaction will be different: People will grow very quiet, eyebrows will raise, mouths will pucker … but it won’t end well, either.

But what will happen if you come into the room with a wildflower in your hand? I have to be specific that this room is full of nature lovers. You should be safe, right? Let’s add the small detail that this wildflower is a milk thistle. Sorry, you are in a huge pickle once again.

Wildflower lovers will split right away into two camps. There is the camp that does not really care; they like the purple color of the flowers, and they will give you a passing glance. But the purists will wake up and become very animated. They will quickly tell you what is wrong with the milk thistle. It is a non-native to California, it takes nutrients and moisture from the native plants, it should be eradicated at once … and there is much truth to that.

I can clearly understand the position of the purists. I was part of a campaign to eradicate another plant, the horehound, from the Placerita Canyon Nature Center. We spent months pulling this plant out of the ground. It came back the next year, maybe in smaller numbers, but that sort of doused my enthusiasm. It is a constant fight which can have good results in a small area. But non-natives come in with the wind, run off with the rain, and seeds are carried by animals.

While I respect the objective of preserving the native plants, I am afraid the non-natives are here to stay in California – plants and people, too, but I won’t even go there.

This is a fun introduction, but you need to know what a thistle looks like. Check the photos. They were all taken at Rivendale Ranch at Towsley Canyon, on the Taylor Trail (parking lot to your right after the gate).

The flowers is purple and has been the national emblem of Scotland since 1246. It was printed on their silver coins, and it is part of the name of many Scottish football clubs. It is used by the Scottish as a way to show they belong – for example, it is one of the four emblems on the flag of Montréal. It is also the symbol of an area in France called Lorraine. Their motto is “Qui s’y frotte s’y pique” – “Who touches it, picks oneself” – which is a similar idea to the Scottish motto, “Nemo me impune lacessit.”

If you don’t know what this is all about, I will only say you need a thick pair of leather garden gloves to pick up even the young milk thistles because they are extremely prickly. If they are mature, you do not even want to try to pick them up. The prickles are all over the plant, on the stems and on the flat margin of the leaves. And they are sharp.

However, as a plant with many contradictions, you will notice that the flower reminds you very much of the artichoke flower – which is another type of thistle. With the milk thistle, you have to use the plant very young before the prickles have time to grow. The plant is tender then, and all parts of the plant can be eaten.

The root can be eaten raw or cooked. Flower buds can be cooked. The stems can be eaten raw or cooked, but it is better if they are first soaked for a while to remove all bitterness, and they should be peeled.

The leaves can be used like spinach leaves and eaten raw or cooked. This is only to be tried if you want to be adventurous and you have access to very young plants, but it is true that milk thistles are eaten around the globe. In certain countries, roasted milk thistle seeds can be used to replace coffee.

The plants from the genus Cynara are a source of vegetable rennet to make cheese.

Why such a name as “milk” thistle? If you look at the leaves, there is a white mottling on them, and it is actually quite pretty. Legend says that a drop of milk from the Virgin Mary fell on the leaves and was left there forever. The scientific name is Sylibum marianumwas; Sybylum refers to a Greek physician and marianum to the Virgin Mary legend.

As the plant originates from mountains of the Mediterranean region, a legend takes off and makes it the plant of choice for Christ’s crowns of thorns.

In a different part of the world, the “giant thistle of the Pampas” described by Darwin in “The Voyage of the Beagle” is thought to be the milk thistle. They have spread all over the globe. They like dry and rocky soil and thrive in areas where the soil has been disturbed.

Thistles were always used for medicinal purposes. Medieval writers thought they could give you a full head of hair if you were bald. Shakespeare mentioned the thistle’s medical aspect in one of his books, and in modern times, it has been used as remedy for digestion problems, headaches, plagues, canker sores, vertigo and jaundice.

It originated in Kashmir, but Indian milk thistle came to Europe during the Middle Ages and was cultivated in Europe as a vegetable until the end of the 19th Century.

Some species of Silybum are cultivated in fields for the production of raw material for vegetable oil and pharmaceutical compounds such a Silibinin. In parts of Europe, China and Argentina, it is used to treat liver disease and cancer, but the clinical studies are contradictory; more clinical trials are needed.

Goldfinches feed on thistle and use the down from the dried-up flower to build their nest. Each flower can produce about 200 seeds, so that makes it an average of 6,350 seeds per plant, per year.

Some people buy Nyjer seeds for their bird feeder and call them thistle seeds, but they are not related. Nyjer seeds are the seeds of the African yellow daisy. This birdseed was at first called Niger in reference to Nigeria, the plant geographic origin but was trademarked as Nyjer in 1998 by the Wild Bird Feeding Industry. Proper Pronunciation is (NYE-jerr).

Carduus is the Latin name for a thistle. Chardon in French. Cardonnacum is the Latin word for a place with thistles.

Where are we going with this? Do you know the wine, Chardonnay? Well, it comes from the village Chardonnay in France that can also be described as “this place full with thistles.” And that is how it got its name.

I have been trying to give the thistle a chance, and it has many good points. However, it is also true that it competes with native plants and crops, and it interferes drastically with grazing in pastures. It can be highly toxic to cattle and sheep because it contains potassium nitrate, and the animals may die from oxygen deprivation when it is broken down by their digestive system. A few plants in a grazing field may be disastrous.

Go into the hills in Santa Clarita to take a hike. The milk thistles are in bloom right now, and their purple flowers shimmer in the light. Later in the season they will be dried up, so now is the time to look for them. Either you will kick them with your hiking boots (watch out for the spikes) because they are not native, or you will look at them from a safe distance.

The important thing is that you find out what they are and what they look like. Their beauty is short-lived under our hot sun, so enjoy the blossoms right now.

 

Evelyne Vandersande has been a docent at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center since 1986. She lives in Newhall.

 

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1 Comment

  1. Jim Crowley says:

    Great Info Evelyne!! and I thought they were natives…

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