Milk Thistle and Hemlock: The Prickly and the Poisonous
Prickly and Poisonous Companions
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.
The poison hemlock is the 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.
The milk thistle is the plant with the 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.
Click any picture to see it full-size.
Let's Begin with Milk Thistle
Milk thistle is the prickly one depicted in the photos above. It may look dangerous but it is not poisonous, and, in fact, 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. Follow the links for more information on its nutritional and medicinal uses.
A Perfect Milk Thistle Flower
Q: Is milk thistle poisonous?
A: No. In fact, it's edible.
Milk Thistle Seedings: The Babies
The Milky 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 flowers 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.
Recognizing Milk Thistle Leaves
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
Milk Thistle Flowers
Milk Thistle Gone to Seed
The life Cycle of a Milk Thistle
More information about Milk Thistle
- Milk Thistle - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
This article gives you an overview of more scientific information about the milk thistle as well as its uses as food and medicine.
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. To learn more about poison hemlock, see my expanded article: Poison Hemlock: Lovely and Lethal.