Investigating the World

Planting, Pruning, and Plucking Thistles

Planting, Pruning, and Plucking Thistles

“All my life I have tried to pluck a thistle and plant a flower wherever the flower would grow in thought and mind.”

– Abraham Lincoln

Most gardeners, farmers, recreationists, and people with lawns consider thistles to be weeds.  Even Abraham Lincoln alluded to plucking them as if they were weeds to make way for flowers in this frequently quoted metaphor.  Since thistle plants are angiosperms, they, too, have flowers, and their flowers are prolific seed producers.  One thistle flower can produce as many as 200 seeds, and a plant can produce from 1 to 100 flowers, depending on the species.  This is one of the reasons thistles are considered to be invasive and/or noxious weeds in parts of every continent except Antarctica, where they are unable to grow.  Plowed fields, roadways, wildlife areas, and overgrazed pastures are a few of the areas that act as nurseries for thistle seeds transported by wind.

Like other gardeners and amateur naturalists, I have an ambiguous relationship with the thistle plant.  I am dismayed to see pastures and crops overtaken by thistles, but I appreciate the fact that thistle plants become natural food markets for the many animals that have adapted to feed on thistle leaves, pollen, and nectar.  Omnivores, such as hummingbirds, are attracted to the thistle plant to get nectar and to eat tiny aphids, gnats, and beetles feeding there, too.  Even humans eat the flower buds of one variety of thistle which is cultivated as food – artichokes.

On our 10 acres in “downtown” Comfort, Texas, we pluck, prune, and plant true thistles as well as plants that have “thistle” in their name.  Invasive, nonnative plants, such as Malta star-thistle, are plucked; purple thistle (Cirsium horridulum) is pruned and kept within strict boundaries; and artichoke thistle seeds are planted.

Artichoke plants are common in the parts of California where nearly 100% of U.S. artichokes are commercially grown, but they are still a novelty in the rest of the United States.  Most people don’t recognize the plant as something other than a weed until the easily identified flower buds appear.  I have been growing artichokes for five years, and instead of eating the developing buds, we allow 90% of them to mature into flowers for thousands of insects and hundreds of tourists to enjoy.

Last year, after the above-ground part of my plants died during our hot Texas summer, I removed the dead debris and tossed it over a fence.  To my surprise, in late fall, artichoke seedlings appeared.  These new plants made it through the winter, and a new thistle cycle began – leaves, buds, flowers, and seeds…all of which provide food for something to eat, including me.

Brain Refreshments

• The thistle is the national emblem of Scotland.

• Thistle plants have prickles on all parts of the plant as an adaptation to prevent herbivores from eating the leaves, stems, and flowers.  This physical characteristic gives the species a chance to survive and thrive wherever its seeds spread and grow.

• Finches and doves are some of the birds that eat thistle seeds.

• Nyjer seed, used to feed winter finches, is from the African yellow daisy that is NOT related to the thistle plant.  (This small black seed is often referred to as thistle seed.)

• Some birds, such as hummingbirds and finches, use the thistledown found around each thistle seed to line their nests.  The down allows seeds to be dispersed by wind.

• Milk thistle is planted for its seeds, which are harvested to produce medicinal supplements (silibinin).  Seeds that escape during the commercial harvesting of thistles can become invasive.

• Some thistle species are commercial sources of vegetable rennet, which is used to make cheese.

• Canada thistle is actually native to Eurasia.  In the 1600s, it came to North America unintentionally, mixed in with seed for planting crops.  It is now one of the most widespread types of thistle and very invasive because it crowds out native species.

• In the 1800s, French immigrants grew artichokes in Louisiana and the Spanish grew them in California.

• Commercial artichoke production began in the late nineteenth century in San Mateo County, CA, with Green Globe Artichokes.

• About 75% of the artichokes raised are used fresh, and the remaining are processed as canned hearts and crowns or as frozen artichokes.

• Some nurseries sell artichoke starter plants in the spring. 

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Cooking In the Kitchen with Dinah

Since I allow artichoke buds to flower in my butterfly garden, I buy prepared artichokes for cooking. Comfort is about an equal distance from three popular Hill Country towns – Boerne, Kerrville, and Fredericksburg.  All three of these towns have HEB grocery stores where I can purchase frozen artichoke hearts.  If you can’t find frozen artichokes in your local store, use two cans of drained artichoke hearts instead.

Artichoke Tortilla Tapas

12 corn tortillas, cut into fourths
1 cup of heavy cream
3/4 cup of chicken broth
8 eggs
1 package of frozen artichoke hearts,
cut into 1/2” pieces
1 large onion, chopped
6 cloves of fresh garlic, minced
12 oz. cooked bacon, crumbled
(Reserve 6 T of the fat.)
1 bunch of green onions, chopped
8 ounces of soft mozzarella cheese,
cut into 1/2” squares
2 cups of grated mozzarella cheese
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
6 T melted butter or bacon fat
1 t each of salt and black pepper


1.) Cut the tortillas into fourths.
2.) Mix the eggs, cream, and chicken broth, and soak
the tortillas in the mixture while preparing the other
3.) Coat the bottom and sides of a 9” x 12” casserole dish with 2 T of melted butter or reserved bacon fat.

4.) Use the remaining bacon fat or butter to saute the diced onion, artichoke hearts, and garlic in a skillet until slightly brown.  Add salt and pepper.
5.) Cover the bottom of the pan with half of the tortilla sections.  Top with the following: 1 cup of mozzarella cheese, contents of the skillet, half of the bacon, and half of the green onions.  Next, evenly distribute the soft mozzarella and 1/2 cup of Parmesan over the top.  
6.) Cover with the remaining tortilla sections.  Pour the egg mixture into the pan, and top with 1 cup of grated mozzarella cheese and 1/2 cup of Parmesan.  Sprinkle bacon and green onions on top.
Bake uncovered at 325° for 50 to 60 minutes until firm.  Allow to cool to room temperature before cutting into small tapa-sized rectangles.  Serve warm or hot with any of the following: garlic olive oil, sour cream, chopped cilantro, and/or sriracha hot sauce.

Neither Dinah Zike, nor any of her companies, family members, or employees are compensated in any manner for mentioning businesses, locations, or products in this blog.


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