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Milk Thistle and Hemlock: The Prickly and the Poisonous

Barb's hobbies are photography and studying nature. She gardens and takes photo walks to explore nature and capture it on camera.

Milk thistle and poison hemlock growing together, as they often do.

Milk thistle and poison hemlock growing together, as they often do.

Telling Milk Thistle and Hemlock Apart

Almost anyone who walks in Lawrence Moore Park in Paso Robles or has rural property in Templeton or Paso Robles has seen these two gorgeous weeds and has probably seen them growing side by side. The edible partner in this pair is the one you probably would never pick, but the poisonous one is so lovely you might be tempted to cut some to put in a vase at home, perhaps mixed with other flowers.

Don't do it. It's best not to touch it at all, as it contains the poison that Socrates was forced to drink as capital punishment. It can easily kill you, too, if ingested. Beautiful as it is, don't let it remain in your yard if you have children around who might accidentally pick or eat it.

Hemlock Is Poisonous

The poison hemlock is a plant with fern-like leaves and delicate white flowers. It is related to the carrot, but you should never eat any part of it. If you see it growing in the wild, leave it alone, and if you find it in your yard, get rid of it.

Milk Thistle Is Edible

The milk thistle is a plant with variegated leaves with milky white veins. It is not only edible but good for you—it's just a little hard to disarm. Its purple flower is stunning, and it's related to the artichoke.

After you read this, you will be able to recognize both plants. This article discusses both, but I focus and expand on poison hemlock in another article.

What Does Milk Thistle Look Like?

Milk thistle is the prickly one depicted in the photos above. It may look dangerous, but it is not poisonous. In fact, it has an edible stem. If you peel it when it is young, it is said to taste like celery. It looks like and is in the same plant family as the thorny artichoke, but the artichoke's thorns are not as sharp and cannot do as much damage as those that protect the flower of the milk thistle.

Historically, all parts of the plant have been eaten. They say that you can cook and eat the base of the flower as you would eat the heart of an artichoke, but most people say it's not worth the effort for the size of the treat.

Its medicinal uses include preventing and repairing damage to the liver from toxic chemicals and helping in the treatment of those who have ingested the poisonous mushroom commonly known as the death cap mushroom.

A perfect Milk Thistle flower. This picture was taken in the middle of November in Templeton, California. It's beautiful, but you won't want to let those stickers stab you. It can draw blood.

A perfect Milk Thistle flower. This picture was taken in the middle of November in Templeton, California. It's beautiful, but you won't want to let those stickers stab you. It can draw blood.

Milk Thistle's Flowers and Leaves

Since the leaves appear first, we'll discuss them first. At first, it's hard to tell them from other seedlings, but if they are growing under the dried stalks of last year's plants, you can be pretty sure that those tiny green plants are going to be milk thistles.

By the time the second set of leaves emerges, you can be sure of it. Tiny as they are, you will see the beginnings of the white markings. As you can see in the photos, the plant itself seems to take on different shapes. They usually start as rosettes with a central stem in the middle. (In the picture, you will see a single flower bud.) I believe the stem will grow taller as the flower matures because when we see the mature plants, the flower's stems have often grown quite high, often be taller than a man.

The second picture in this group shows what may be a clump of crowded plants. Plants do produce more than one flower on a stalk.

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Read More From Dengarden

More About Milk Thistle Flowers

As you can see, the milk thistle flower is well-defended. On both the bud and the flower, what appear to be the thorns under it are really modified leaves. But, leaves or not, they are very, very sharp, and you don't want to tangle with them. Leave the flowers to the bees who love them.

Milk Thistle bud and flower. Notice how the leaves right under the flower have been modified into spiny thorns. This picture was taken on November 13.

Milk Thistle bud and flower. Notice how the leaves right under the flower have been modified into spiny thorns. This picture was taken on November 13.

The Life Cycle of a Milk Thistle

Poison Hemlock

In the photos, you can see the plant that killed Socrates up close. Notice the pretty, fern-like leaves. It resembles wild carrot, but your nose will tell you the difference since it does not smell at all like carrot. It is said to taste somewhat like parsnip and its smell is described as "mouse-like." But don't taste it for yourself, as it is deadly!

Because milky thistle and poison hemlock occur together in nature so frequently (see the many photos here, both as seedlings and mature plants growing together), I discuss them together in this article.

Poison Hemlock Surrounding a Park Bench

A park bench in midst of a forest of young poison hemlock. One plant is even growing right through the seat of the bench. Taken in winter or early spring at Lawrence Moore Park in Paso Robles.

A park bench in midst of a forest of young poison hemlock. One plant is even growing right through the seat of the bench. Taken in winter or early spring at Lawrence Moore Park in Paso Robles.

Mother Nature's Dangerous Bouquet

Do not try to pick these white flowers. Purple milk thistle flowers grow among the lovely white poison hemlock flowers with their frilly leaves.

Do not try to pick these white flowers. Purple milk thistle flowers grow among the lovely white poison hemlock flowers with their frilly leaves.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Comments

Kim Miller on August 17, 2017:

Such a beautiful plant. Does it grow in Ohio?

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on May 21, 2012:

praetlo, thank you. Now you know all about it. Have you ever seen it where you live?

prasetio30 from malang-indonesia on May 20, 2012:

I had never heard about this plant before. But thanks for writing and share with us. Good job and rated up!

Prasetio

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on May 20, 2012:

Downtrodden,I wrote that last year, and I'm not sure what camera I was using back then. I used a Flip Camcorder for the videos at that time, since I didn't have my new camera yet.

DowntroddenInDC from Houston, TX on May 19, 2012:

Beautiful photos! What kind of camera are you using?

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on May 19, 2012:

Frogyfish, are you sure you aren't confusing milk thistle with milkweed? I know Monarchs have to have milkweed to lay their eggs and that their caterpillars eat it. Did you see my hub on milkweed? They are very different plants. I'd not heard that Monarchs are attracted to milk thistles, but maybe there's something I don't know about that.

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on May 19, 2012:

Stephanie, now that you know what a beautiful plant it is, you should enjoy the supplement more. Thank you for your comments.

frogyfish from Central United States of America on May 19, 2012:

Informative hub. Loved the ladybug pix too. Your video showed the 'forest of thistles' and that is amazing...hope you keep them going well...they have been outlawed in Oklahoma because they restrict pastures for cows. However milk thistles of all kinds are necessary Monarch butterfly food. Local blooms are more bell shaped, have seen AZ blooms that are bright raspberry pink. I think it is a beautiful plant and regret that it seems to have been considered a pest. Great hub!

I will have to see your hemlock hub...I think it grows thickly where I walk by a lake...did not know what it was, just a pretty fern. Wow!

Stephanie Bradberry from New Jersey on May 19, 2012:

Even though I take milk thistle as a supplement, I never really knew much about it except it is good overall supplement for women, especially, to take. The information was extremely useful and interesting. Thanks for all the wonderful pictures.

And now I am off to read more about hemlock!

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on May 19, 2012:

Thanks, Marlene. There are so many plants around us I never dreamed were killers. I've been reading the book I have for sale on the hub, Wicked Plants, and I was amazed. Wish Amy had included more pictures.

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on May 19, 2012:

Thanks, urmilashukla, for stopping by to read and comment.

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on May 19, 2012:

kuttingxedge, I thought is was a fun picture. This year they seem to have sprayed that whole area and there's not much there but foxtails.

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on May 19, 2012:

Thanks, DzyMsLizzy. I know of know relationship between these two plants. I did a separate hub on milkweed. milkweed has no thorns and and has a completely different structure.

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on May 19, 2012:

Thanks, livingpah,

Marlene Bertrand from USA on May 19, 2012:

This is amazing. I learned a lot here. I have seen milk thistle a few times and never paid it any attention. Now, I know exactly what to look for. Excellent photos and explanations. Now, I want to go read about poison hemlock. By the way, congratulations on receiving Hub of the Day!

Urmila from Rancho Cucamonga,CA, USA on May 19, 2012:

Great Hub! Congratulations on Hub of the day award!

Steven P Kelly from Tampa, FL on May 19, 2012:

Very fun information. That park bench looks like a seductive trap! I'll keep my eyes open. Thanks for sharing!

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on May 19, 2012:

Congratulations on HOTD!! What a well-done and superbly informative article with beautiful photos.

Is "milk thistle," I wonder, related to, the plant we call "milkweed?" (We are in the far eastern Bay Area.) I get to pull those, as my husband is allergic to the milky sap--it will give him a horrible rash, and if the flowers are present, make him have a sneezing fit.

I'll be sure to look up your other hub on hemlock.

Voted up, interesting, awesome and shared.

Milli from USA on May 19, 2012:

Great Hub. Voted up!

Congrats on HUBT!

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on May 19, 2012:

Thanks, Nancy. I'll have to take another look at your profile. .

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on May 19, 2012:

Thakns, Kelley. What do you take the mild thistle for? I never can remember, but I know it's some condition I have.

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on May 19, 2012:

Becky, LOL. You and my husband think alike. I"d probably leave them on the part of the property far from my garden area. After all, all the neighbors have them and they are on all the roadsides around here. It's not as though we can keep them completely off the property. I like them much better than the bull thistles currently growing through one of my grape vines, since they have more wicked thorns and are harder to pull.

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on May 19, 2012:

Thanks for the kind words, dbuddhika.

Nancy McClintock from Southeast USA on May 19, 2012:

Wow Great article. I never would have recognized both of these plants. congratulations on winning hub of day. We have some things in common. Nancy

kelleyward on May 19, 2012:

Congrats on HOTD! I take milk thistle So I'm glad I read this! Take care, Kelley

Becky Katz from Hereford, AZ on May 19, 2012:

Congrats on HOTD. I also immediately noticed the resemblance of the hemlock to Queen Anne's lace, so I went and Googled it. The main difference is that The Queen Anne's lace has a hairy looking stem. To remember which is which, Queen Anne has hairy legs. Laughed at that, but it is easy to remember.

The thistle is beautiful but I try to get them out of my yard before they get the flowers. They are much harder to get rid of if you wait for them to bloom.

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on May 19, 2012:

Thank you, ComfortB. I'm glad you learned something new.

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on May 19, 2012:

Thank you Happpyboomernurse. Seems I'm always prowling this property and everywhere else with my camera to document all I see. It's very likely that what you saw by the river were indeed these plants. Our river here is lined with them. Since they never clean them up, we have many generations of spent thistles still there.

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on May 19, 2012:

I'm glad you enjoyed it, Gypsy. It was fun writing it.

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on May 19, 2012:

Thank you RandomCreative. I think I'm turning into an amateur naturalist.

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on May 19, 2012:

Thanks, Natashalh. I love taking all the pictures.

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on May 19, 2012:

Thanks, vespawolf, I still haven't figured out how to harvest and process this for myself. Guess I'm just not ambitious enough. My husband is also determined to eradicate it from our property, but I don't think he can get it all. I can always go down to the river if I lose my personal supply and actually wanted to use it.

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on May 19, 2012:

Thank you, Daughter of Maat. Just remember to wears glove when you pick them, because those thorns do hurt.

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on May 19, 2012:

Thank you, pstrauble. I guess we should believe the old adage that looks are deceiving. But these plants are very photogenic, LOL.

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on May 19, 2012:

Milk thistle isn't poisonous. It actually has medicinal uses. The thorns are what hurt you. It's hemlock that can kill you.

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on May 19, 2012:

The milk thistle is the least dangerous and has the most warning signs -- those thorns. It's even edible if you remove the thorns. The Hemlock is deadly, and it can even cause problems if you touch it. The best rule is that if you don't know what a plant is, admire it from a distance.

dbuddhika on May 19, 2012:

Great article. photos are great too! What an enjoyable read!

Comfort Babatola from Bonaire, GA, USA on May 19, 2012:

Very interesting hub indeed! First time I'm reading on milk thistles. Very well detailed and full of useful points.

Congrats on being the hub of the day! Well deserved.

Gail Sobotkin from South Carolina on May 19, 2012:

Congratulations on earning Hub of the Day for this comprehensive and well documented article. I love the way you took pictures at different dates so you could show the milk thistle plant in various stages of development.