Common Thistle

Cirsium vulgare

Herbs gallery - Common Thistle

Common names

  • Common Thistle
  • Cotton Thistle
  • Woolly Thistle

The common thistle (botanical name, Cirsium vulgare), also known as the bull thistle or spear thistle, is a biennially growing plant that grows up to a height of 3.3 feet to 4.95 feet (1 m to 1.5 m). The main stem of this plant is firm and thorny.

This plant bears leaves that end in extended, sharp thorns having a beige color. Common thistle produces plenty of seeds having small feathers and are fixed to the base by means of a ring till they mature. The roots of the plant are thin and deep.

Parts used

Root, leaves, flowery tops, seeds.

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Traditionally, the common thistle has been used for a variety of medicinal purposes. According to the belief of the Native Americans, any object that sticks or pricks an individual will also alleviate the hurt when an ointment prepared with the same substance is applied on the affected area.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine different types of thistles are used to prepare decoctions to alleviate inflammation. In addition, an infusion prepared with the leaves and roots of common thistle is believed to heal stiff neck, seizures as well as nervous disorders.

Common thistle roots have also been employed as a poultice and a decoction prepared using the plant too is used as a poultice to treat aching jaws.

A hot infusion prepared with the whole common thistle plant has been traditionally used to treat rheumatic joint pains. Similarly, a decoction prepared with the whole plant has been used internally as well as externally to heal bleeding piles.

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The inner bark of common thistle yields a fiber, which is approximately 0.9 mm in length, which is used in paper manufacture. The stems of the plant are harvested during the latter part of summer.

Following the harvesting of the stems, the leaves are collected and the stem is steamed till the fiber can be removed. The fibers are heated with lye for around two hours and subsequently, put into a ball mill for another three hours. The paper produced by this process has a pale brownish tan color.

Good quality oil can be obtained by extracting the seeds of different species of thistles. The thistledown is excellent as firewood which can be lit without difficulty even by a spark from a stone.

In addition, the Cherokee, a Native American tribe, used the down of the plant for the tail on blow guns. If you ignore all the above mentioned uses of common thistle, you can still use the plant to begin an excellent campfire.

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Culinary uses

The leaves, flower stems, flowers, flower buds, seeds and roots of common thistle have been used for culinary purposes for several years. Tender leaves of the plant are soaked overnight in saline water and cooked for consumption.

According to one report, the leaves of common thistle may also be added to salads after thorns are removed. The leaves are known to have a somewhat insipid flavour and when the thorns are removed from the leaves, very little edible matter remains. Besides, removing the thorns from the leaves is a very tricky job.

Even the roots of common thistle are cooked and they have a flavour akin to Jerusalem artichoke. Instead, the root also has a somewhat bland flavour and, hence, it is best to cook it mixing it with other vegetables.

In addition to consuming the roots fresh, they may also be dried and stored for use when necessary. As the root has rich inulin (a starch) content, it cannot be easily digested by humans. This starch (inulin) just passes through the digestive system directly and, in some individuals, it ferments to cause flatulence.

Some people also cook and use the young flower stems of common thistle as a vegetable. Even the flower buds of the plant are brought to culinary use.

These flower buds are used akin to round artichokes, but they are comparatively small and even more difficult to prepare. The dehydrated thistle flowers are used as a rennet alternative to curdle plant milks. At times, even the seeds of thistle are roasted and consumed by some people.

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Habitat and cultivation

Common thistle is native to Great Britain and the Mediterranean regions. In addition, this plant is now found growing in the United States too. Common thistle has a preference for arid, limestone soil and is also found growing on pastures and nitrogenous soil.

It may be noted that the common thistle is a destructive weed, which spreads without restraint by means of its seed that can be scattered far and wide by the wind.

The seedlings of thistle possess the aptitude to establish themselves in grassland. In fact, one should never encourage this plant and if you find it growing on your land, cut them immediately before the plants produce seeds.

Some people consider eating the plant to be the best way to get rid of them! Precisely speaking, the common thistle is a plant that can be grown without any difficulty and it has the aptitude to flourish in any common garden soil in a sunlit position.

Although it is a destructive weed and many people avoid growing it on their land, the common thistle is also cultivated commercially. The plant is propagated by its seeds.

For commercial cultivation of the plant, sow the seeds in early spring or, alternately, in autumn in situ (the permanent place where the plant would grow outdoors). When placed in a temperature of 20°C, it generally takes anything between two to eight weeks for the seeds to germinate.

While the common thistle has a preference for sunlit open areas, it is able to endure an assortment of conditions ranging from damp to arid soils. This plant is generally found growing in troubled areas, for instance, trails, roadside, vacant land, logged area, cultivated land and in pastures.

In effect, pastures that have been over grazed are vulnerable to invasion by the common thistle. At times, the plant may even form crowded stands, which, in turn, lower the productivity as well as stocking levels of the soil. In addition, the common thistle also has the aptitude to take over clear cuts inside the forest lands and diminish the growth of seedlings of other trees in the vicinity.


Chemical analysis of the different parts of common thistle has shown that the plant encloses several elements that are beneficial for our health.

The leaves of common thistle enclose chlorophyll, sugar, bioflavonoids, a number of minerals, like iron, potassium and silica, mucilages, bitter principles and tannins. The plant's roots contain inulin (a starch) and bitter principles.

The seeds of common thistle enclose different acids and polyunsaturated oil.


In many places, common thistle plant is regularly used as a food for sustenance. Once the thorns are removed, the leaves of the plant can be consumed. In effect, common thistle is also used to make a nourishing bittersweet soup.

Finely chopped leaves of common thistle are also employed as a poultice for treating suppurate wounds discharging pus. Drinking a solution prepared by boiling the whole leaf, one leaf in one cup (250 ml) of water, acts as an effective diuretic and mildly drains the liver as well as provides comfort when fevers are caused by an overworked liver.

The roots of common thistle are effective in lowering the blood sugar levels, cholesterol levels in the bloodstream and also reduce blood pressure.

During the medieval period, people were of the belief that the common thistle was a magic lotion to treat baldness and, hence, held the plant in high esteem.

The wool-like aigrette (feathers attached to the seeds) of the thistle have been used for dressing wounds and also stuffing pillows for a long time. Earlier, for several years, the thistle seed oil extracted by means of cold press was used for cooking as well as lighting lamps.

Antiviral decoction

An effective anti-viral decoction can be prepared using the flower head of the common thistle. In order to prepare this anti-viral decoction, the plant's flower heads ought to be harvested at the beginning of the flowering season.

Take a handful of the flower heads and boil them in three cups (750 ml) of pure water for around three minutes and then allow the solution to permeate for another 15 minutes. This decoction should be taken during the day and prior to taking any meal.

If you are down due to a viral infection, take this decoction regularly for around 10 to 30 days and you will be cured. In addition, the decoction prepared with the flower head of common thistle also invigorates the immune system, while providing nourishment to the whole body.


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