General: plant 30-150 cm tall. Growth habit: erect biennial with a taproot. Stems: conspicuously spiny-winged by the extended leaf bases, spreading stiff-hairy to sometimes cobwebby.
Leaves: alternate, pinnately cut, the larger ones with the lobes again toothed or lobed, with rough, bristly hairs above, thinly white-woolly-hairy to sometimes green and merely stiff-hairy beneath. The leaf bases are extended down the stem.
Flowerheads: purple or rarely white, showy, up to 4-5 cm wide, several on branches. Involucre about 2.5-4 cm high, its bracts are all spine-tipped, without any well developed glutinous dorsal ridge.
Fruits: achenes, less than 4 mm long, with pappus of feathery bristles.
Pastures, fields, roadsides, and waste places in w. and c. parts of MT. Native of Eurasia, now widely established as a weed in N. America.
The root of bull thistle is edible cooked. It has a taste somewhat like a Jerusalem artichoke, but not as nice. A rather bland flavor, the root is best used mixed with other vegetables. It can be dried and stored for later use. The root is rich in inulin, a starch that cannot be digested by humans. This starch thus passes straight through the digestive system and, in some people, ferments to produce gases. Young flower stems can be cooked and used as a vegetable. Young leaves can be soaked overnight in salt water and then cooked and eaten. Another report says that they can be used in salads. The taste is rather bland but the prickles need to be removed from the leaves before the leaves can be eaten - not only is this a rather tedious operation but very little edible matter remains. The flower buds can be cooked and used like globe artichokes, but the are smaller. The dried flowers has been a rennet substitute for curdling plant milks. The seeds has occasionally been eaten roasted.
The roots of bull thistle have been used as a poultice and a decoction of the plant used as a poultice on sore jaws. A hot infusion of the whole plant has been used as a herbal steam for treating rheumatic joints. Bleeding piles have been treated by a decoction of the whole plant, used both internally and externally.
The down makes an excellent tinder that is easily lit by a spark from a flint.
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