Rethinking Thistles

Many gardeners view thistles as problem weeds. But thistles (of several different varieties) can be extremely useful garden plants. There are lots of thistles where we live, but rather than trying to eradicate them entirely from cultivated areas, I consider them as a benefit and welcome them in my garden (at least to a degree).

I’ve already spoken before about how useful nettles can be in a garden. But nettles are not the only ‘problem weed’ that can actually be a great permaculture plant.

I welcome thistles in my garden as excellent wildlife-friendly plants. They are extremely good nectar producers and an important food source for a wide range of pollinators. Bumble bees love them, as do other bees, and many species of butterfly. The seeds are eaten by finches, and a number of other bird species, and the standing stalks provide shelter and habitat for a number of insects over the winter months.

Thistles can also be great dynamic accumulators, and though rather spiny to deal with, provide plenty of vegetative matter to chop and drop, or add to the compost before they go to seed.

Thistles can also have edible uses. These spiny plants might not immediately make you think of edible produce. But the flower heads can be eaten as substitutes for globe artichokes (though they are smaller, of course, and more fiddly to prepare). Stems of certain species can also have their rind removed and be boiled like asparagus or rhubarb. And young leaves and shoots can also have spines removed and be eaten.

And the edible uses are just the beginning. Different parts of various types of thistle can also be used in other ways – providing other yields.

So the next time you bemoan the thistles popping up in your garden, don’t think of them as a problem plant. Understand that even these ‘weeds’ can be very useful plants, with a range of beneficial uses in your garden.

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