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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.

Beautiful Companions

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

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

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.

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. 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 sticker stab you. It can draw blood.

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

Q: Is milk thistle poisonous?

A: No. In fact, it's edible.

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.

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.

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.

I was walking near a river in a nature preserve yesterday and I think I just saw this duo of dangerous friends along the riverbank and nearby field.

Voted up except for funny.

Gypsy Rose Lee from Daytona Beach, Florida on May 19, 2012:

wow this was a fascinating read. Voted up and interesting. Lots of things I didn't know although I had heard of both of these plants. Thanks for sharing and passing this on.Great pictures.

Rose Clearfield from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on May 19, 2012:

Great job with this hub! Lots of beautiful pictures and detailed information. Congrats on getting Hub of the Day!

Natasha from Hawaii on May 19, 2012:

I love all the pictures! Thanks for sharing all the photos and information, and congratulations on hub of the day!

Vespa Woolf from Peru, South America on May 19, 2012:

A friend of mine takes milk thistle capsules for her liver, but I'd never thought of finding it in nature. Very interesting hub! Congrats on HOTD!

Melissa Flagg COA OSC from Rural Central Florida on May 19, 2012:

I have a ton of thistle and feverfew growing in my backyard, and I was wondering if it happened to be the wonderfully useful milk thistle. Thank you for this hub! Now I can go out and see if it is, and pick some! Great photos!! Perfect for identifying the plant!

Voted up, useful and shared

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on May 19, 2012:

Hemlock is deceptively beautiful. Who would think it is potentially dangerous?

I was familiar with the milk thistle but you even taught me something about it. I did not know its stem could be eaten.

The little pink flower is so appealing. As a matter of fact, when I was in Tennessee working, I took lots of pictures of them and I used one of them as my profile pic here on HP for a while.

thank you, WannaB Writer for sharing this information with us.

And congratulations on hub of the day.

sammimills from California, USA on May 19, 2012:

Great hub! They look beautiful. I remember seeing a milk thistle, and I was so into touching it and I didn't have any idea that the plant is poisonous. Good thing my friend was there to tell me not to touch it. Thanks for the additional information! Voted Up!

JP Carlos from Quezon CIty, Phlippines on May 19, 2012:

Looks can really be deceiving. I just hope I remember what you wrote when I see it in person. They’re just darn beautiful especially the milk thistle.

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on May 03, 2012:

blah blah, I'm glad you didn't decide to munch on the poison hemlock or you would not have been able to write your comment. It's good looks are deceptive -- especially since it looks a bit like dill, wild carrot, and fennel and Queen Anne's Lace. My weed abatement man told me what it was, since I thought at first it might be Queen Anne's Lace.

blah blah on May 03, 2012:

Good article. I've been exploring the vegetation in a field near where I work during lunch. I was already familiar with dandelion, plantago/plantain, and field onion, and have munched on the leaves commonly during lunch. I discovered some sorrel growing around some trees, and loved the tart/tangy taste of those. Was going to explore milk thistle some, and knew it was a useful herbal for liver. But, didn't realize all the white, poofy flowery plants around here were poisonous hemlock. There's fields full of the stuff near-by. I basically don't touch a plant unless I can find an identifying feature, like a flowerette or something coming out of it. Once I can identify that, it starts to become pretty amazing how they just stand out when you start looking. The plants no longer just "all look the same".

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on February 26, 2012:

I have often found the field guides less than helpful because they don't show the plant at all stages of growth and normally there are no close-ups of the parts of the plant I'm trying to ID. Especially when it comes to trees, I need a close-up of the leaves, the blossoms, and the fruits, as well as the shape of the tree as a whole. Usually some of the pieces are missing. In my photo essays, I try to supply as much visual information as I can find. Thank you for your kind words.

roxiel on February 25, 2012:

Thank you so much for your invaluable information. I just collected a bunch of trimmings for an assignment, including these. In the process of trying to Id the plants I came across your blog. I appreciate that you photographed the plants at different stages and in different environments. I wish the guidebooks were as informative, especially with the deadlier plants.

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on December 18, 2011:

Thanks for stopping by to comment. I appreciate it.

RockBlossom from The Arkansas Ozarks on December 18, 2011:

This is a great article! I'm off to read the other one on hemlock.

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on November 17, 2011:

I just scratch the surface on the hemlock in this hub. Then I wrote one devoted just to poison hemlock because it is so dangerous. Thank you for your comment. Let me know if you find any poison hemlock up in the Bay Area.

Simone Haruko Smith from San Francisco on November 17, 2011:

Whaaaa? I didn't know that hemlock grew in California! How fascinating! I bet I've walked by it 100 times and never even realized it. Now, I'll know what to look for!

This is a fascinating Hub, and the photos are great too! What an enjoyable read!

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on November 14, 2011:

Audrey, remember a weed can just be a flower growing in the wrong place. I see flowers I'm buying at the nursery listed as weeds in some books, but they suit my purposes for where I plant them. It's good to know the bad guys though, because they are often quite beautiful. I happen to like milk thistle in moderation, whereas my husband would like to eradicate it completely. But I see it as a host plant for ladybugs. It's covered with them in early spring and keeps them happy until I plant my garden. The key here is moderation.

Even if you don't have these things in your own yard, if you hike, especially with children, it's good to know what is poisonous that you might encounter on the trail or even along the side of the road. Many people around here know about poison oak, but hemlock is more deadly. That's why I hope to publish on that today or tomorrow.

Audrey Kirchner from Washington on November 14, 2011:

Barb - You are outdoing yourself on the pictures and the nature photo galleries~ What great finds for people looking for the information.

I confess that I don't know my weeds from a flower half the time and sometimes I end up growing things I think are beautiful in my garden only to find that they are weeds....oh well!

I do need to learn more about what grows around my environs and you are compelling me to do so as soon as I get back outside to work in the yard~ Good work and thanks for the inspiration on getting to know my surroundings.

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on November 14, 2011:

Hyphenbird, I've had 15 years to be an amateur naturalist in the area now, and one of my major areas of interest is weeds. I'm also beginning to take an interest in identifying the various trees on my property. Thanks for your comment.

Brenda Barnes from America-Broken But Still Beautiful on November 14, 2011:

Gorgeous photos of a deadly plant. Hemlock and milk thistle grows wild here also and I have taken some pictures. I appreciate the information. You really know your plants.

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on November 14, 2011:

dave, I haven't seen the hummingbirds on it yet, but the bees and ladybugs love it. I didn't realize until today that the thorns were really just modified leaves. Thanks for your comment and for sharing.

carrie, the thistle isn't poisonous, but the hemlock is deadly. Thanks for commenting.

carriethomson from United Kingdom on November 14, 2011:

hey that's a very interesting hub!! it looks so beautiful no one would ever dream it is poisonous

carrie

David Stillwell from Sacramento, California on November 14, 2011:

WB: The milk thistle is so beautiful... I can see why it grew thorns! Another great hub. The hummingbirds love the milk thistle blooms. I enjoyed the photographs a great deal. You have captured the entire life-cycle of this plant! Voted up and shared.

Elissa Joyce from US on November 14, 2011:

Very Interesting Hub, thanks to share:)