It is the second week of July in Jordan and thistles are the most conspicuous vegetation along roads and in fields. At the edge of barley and wheat fields, a painful border of thistles guard the harvest. Roadsides are often thickets of thistles. In fact, thistles and other armed plants are so common in this part of the world that if you sent a first-time visitor on a hike through fields, he/she would quickly get the point.
No wonder these succulent and often delicious plants need protection. The entire country, including urban areas, is grazed by goats and sheep. We live in the western part of Amman and have shepherds with their flocks frequent our neighborhood. Even as I write this, goats are grazing the remaining green vegetation in front of my house. If a plant is not toxic nor armed, it ends up as a meal! Not surprisingly, thistles are common.
The Old Testament word for thistle, chowach, is cognate with the modern Arabic, shawk-thorn. This is sometimes translated as thorn or thistle. In the first reference to armed plants in the Bible, Genesis 3:18, "It [the cursed ground] will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field." The word translated thorn is qots. Thus, the two words (as well as several others) can be translated as thistle or thorn.
The Genesis account is a helpful commentary on the ecology of thistles. They are usually associated with disturbed areas like fields and roadsides. Scripture provides several examples. "I went past the field of the sluggard, past the vineyard of the man who lacks judgment; thorns had come up everywhere, the ground was covered with weeds, and the stone wall was in ruins." Proverbs 24:30. These "thorns" are probably thistles as a woody plant would not grow as fast as an annual plant. Thistles are annual, armed plants.
The leaf-like structures that surround the flower head of one of the best known thistles, the garden artichoke, are tipped with a sharp point. These are removed until the immature flower head remains, the heart of the artichoke. Wild relatives of the cultivated artichoke are common in Jordan and often have horrific prickles on the flower head three centimeters long. These discouraged me from testing the culinary value of the plant! When young, the flower heads of the wild artichoke resemble an old fashioned shaving brush giving it one of its common names in Arabic, "The donkey's shaving brush" because of its armor.
Thistles are non-woody plants that are outfitted with prickles, one of the three different kinds of plant armor recognized by botanists. Thorns are modified branches. Spines are modified leaves. Prickles are sharp projections that may arise for any plant surface--like those of the artichoke and "donkey's shaving brush". Whatever they are called, a personal encounter with a thorn, spine, or prickle can be painful. Many members of the sunflower family have prickles although thorns and spines can also be present.
Perhaps it is because thistles are often annual plants that need to protect themselves even at the youngest stages that they have prickles. Developing a thorn means investing energy in a primordial branch or leaf. Thorns and spines are most common on trees and shrubs or perennial plants. Prickles are formed on the leaves, stems, and even the flower heads while the plants are young--and most susceptible to grazing. Most of the thistles here in Jordan are in the sunflower family.
Individual flowers of the sunflower family are very small, seldom more than a few millimeters wide, like safran. But hundreds can be produced in a solitary flowering head. Each flower produces a single seeded fruit, usually referred to as a seed. Fruits may have specialized adaptations for air borne dispersal. Long soft hairs ("down") allow the fruits to be lifted by the dry winds of summer and widely scattered. I am always amazed at the incongruity of thistle down caught in the prickles of the plant. Seeds of many can remain dormant in the soil so that when the area is plowed or disturbed, the seeds are exposed to light and water and germinate.
Several thistles are edible. Garden artichoke has been mentioned. Another is safflower ( (Carthamus tinctorius), known in Arabic as safran because the flowers are collected, dried, and used to color rice-- like true saffron. Safran is readily available in a market like the fabled Soq Hamdiah in Damascus.This should not be confused with true saffron (Crocus sativus), however, which is derived from a crocus.
Wild thistles are also eaten. Best known of these edible wild thistles is akoub (Gundelia tournefortii), a common plant in the steppe regions. Some Bible scholars think that the tumbleweed of Psalm 83: 13 ("Make them like tumble-weed galgal, O my God, like chaff before the wind") is akoub.
In March akoub plants are cut at the base and the prickles removed. The disarmed plants are relished as a delicacy that is either cooked with meat or sauteed with onions and oil. I purchased some from a young boy selling them along a country road. Tediously, I removed the young but effective prickles with a scissors. Then, I cooked them with a little olive oil. The flavor resembled mild broccoli. They are a good diet food because they take so much energy to prepare! Like so many wild foods, their desirability is in their wild origin more than in any outstanding flavor.
By mid-May, the akoub stem has separated from the root, allowing the entire plant to be carried by the wind. Near Makawir, the location of Herod's palace on the east of the Jordan and the likely site of the decapitation of John the Baptist , akoub is common. I found the plants stuck in shrubs and in fences, carried there by the wind . Examination of the flowering heads (Figure 13) showed that many of the "seeds" (technically fruits) were missing. As the thistle tumbles over the open ground, the fruits fall out. Akoub's dispersal takes place at about the same time as wheat harvest as indicated by the prophet Isaiah (17: 14)--"driven before the wind like chaff on the hills, like tumbleweed (galgal) before a gale".
The fruits are edible. Like the rest of the plant, they are well endowed with armor. Cracking them open is a chore but the flavor is good, rather like that of its distant relative, sunflower.
Thistles deserve attention--positive attention! Not only are they often beautiful, they are a source of food and were known by the ancients. Plants like akoub show the manifold wisdom of a Creator Who provides food for His creation as well as a fascinating means of diaspore.