If you own land of any size, chances are it has thistle growing on it. This group of plants is one of the most persistent weeds in our area, and if dirt is exposed it will probably end up growing there.
There are several thistle varieties in east Tennessee, and the most troublesome ones are from Europe. All grow to be 3-5 feet tall and have thorny leaves that are painful to brush against. Their showy purple blooms appear in late July through September, have a shaving-brush appearance. The more common varieties of thistle we have in the county are Common thistle (Cirsium vulgare) from Europe, and Field thistle (Cirsium discolor), which is a native. Common thistle can be identified by looking for spiny wings that run up and down the stem. It has more spines than Field thistle.
Both plants are biennial, meaning they take two years to produce seed and complete their reproductive cycle. The first year they are small and form a rosette of leaves that hug the ground. The second year they send up a flower stalk and bloom. Seed are produced in pods that burst open, releasing seeds on feathery parachutes that carry by wind for long distances. If you have a lot of thistle on your property, your neighbors may not appreciate it.
There are several options for controlling thistle. Cattle will only eat it when there’s nothing else. Goats, sheep, and donkeys seem to like the plant, and I know of one person who keeps a donkey with his cattle specifically to control thistle. Grazing a mixture of animal species has been proven to reduce weed problems, so you might consider putting a few sheep or goats in with the cattle. Fencing requirements will vary, so do your homework first. Rotation grazing, which gives sections of pasture a chance to rest between grazings, has been shown to reduce thistle problems by keeping the grass healthy and thick, thus not allowing thistle a seed bed. Herbicides will control thistle, so check with your County Extension Agent for spray recommendations.
Thistle does provide food for goldfinch, sparrows, and hummingbirds. Humans have eaten the young leaves raw or cooked, the young stems peeled and eaten raw or cooked, and the roots of first year plants. If you’re so inclined, remember to eat only a small portion of any new food in case of food allergies, and be sure to positively identify the plant.