Many of our thistles are introduced. Because they are prolific spreaders these thistles are weeds, taking over fields, roadsides and pastures and meadows. One thistle, native to California, and found in California, Oregon, and Nevada is not a troublesome weed. I think cobwebby thistle (Cirsium occidentale) is actually an interesting, pretty plant. Leonard and I have always called this perennial “showy thistle”, a name that does not appear to be in common use. I have no idea where that term came from. Western thistle and cobweb thistle are two other familiar names for C. occidentale.
Growing in dry, open places, cobwebby thistle is a member of the sunflower family. The deeply lobed, spiny, alternate leaves are a dull gray-green and covered in dense hairs. These hairs are often dense enough to make the leaves appear white. Atop the stout stems are one to several flower heads tightly packed with disk flowers in shades of red to purple. The bracts surrounding the flower head are awl-like and sharp. The long, crowded white hairs on the bracts resemble cobwebs, thus the common name.
As with most thistles, the tap root can be boiled or eaten raw. The peeled stem also can be consumed in the same manner as the root. It takes a little patience (and thick skin) to cut the plant off at the ground and hold it at the cut end while stripping the stem with a pocket knife. But the stem, once peeled, has the consistency (and shape) of a celery stalk. The taste is bland, but if I use my imagination, the stem does taste a little like its cousin, the artichoke (another thistle). Medicinally, Naive Americans used cobwebby thistle to stop bleeding and to treat respiratory congestion and dermatitis.
Cirsium, the cobwebby thistle’s genus name, is from the Greek word for thistle, “kirsion”, which was derived from “kirsos” meaning “swollen vein or welt”. Thistles were used by the Greeks to treat such things. The species name, occidentale, means “from the West” which is indeed where this thistle originated.
Not only do I love this plant. Bees, flies, butterflies and other insects are appreciative of cobwebby thistle’s nectar and help polinate the flowers. Additionally, cobwebby thistle self-polinates.
These cobwebby thistles were growing along the Baum Lake Road in Shasta County CA.