The Thistles

Thistle flower

This blog came about because I had left the back of my greenhouse to its own devices for a year until I realised that a couple of very large thistles had made their home there and were now too big to ignore. However, rather than go in to the removal of thistles in a domestic garden war, I have opted to have a quick look at the general usefulness and quirks of the family.

The thistle family is quite a diverse one with over 200 types throughout the world. Some are indigenous to areas, others have been introduced during human migration and expansion, either purposefully as decorative garden plants or accidentally in things like animal feeds and they grow on any type of soil. Their form ranges from tall (up to 6ft), spiny and vicious where the thorns attack you with all the fervour and sharpness of a Cossack horde, to soft, downy and ground hugging benigness.  And to add even more confusion, some of the thistles have interchangeable non-scientific names.

Thistles are part of the Daisy family (Asteraceae), which is the largest group of flowering plants.

This is the usual vision of the thistle.

Thistle flower
Thistle flower.
Thistle plant structure
Thistle Plant structure.

Gloves!! Rigger gloves!! Big thick leather gloves!! And even then the spines will get you. Be warned…

The spiky protection.
The spiky protection.
Approach with caution and your own protection
Approach with caution and your own protection.

Food uses:
All thistles are edible, in principle, although the collection and processing of some of the more aggressive species can be daunting and involves cutting off the thorny points before use. Some just don’t look tasty or worth the effort to process. Once de-thorned, the leaves can be cooked as basic greens or used raw in salads and the larger young stems can be sliced and used as crudités with dips. Most of the family are biannual (like burdock) with flowering in the second year so the roots are best harvested in the autumn of the first year of the cycle and sliced in to stir fries or roasted on the fire. Some are more palatable than others though.

I am thinking of trying the leaves as crisps by cutting off the thorns, slicing out the central vein, sprinkling with oil and salt, pepper, spices and then cooking in the oven at about 160C for 20 or so minutes and see how they turn out. I will let you know.

Medicinal uses:
The thistle has a long history of medicinal use and has been used to treat ailments as diverse as bleeding, sores and abscesses, fever, dysentery, worms and ‘ailments of the liver’ They have even been used to treat syphilis although how it was administered, I have been unable to determine..

Current research is looking at thistle extracts and compounds being used as a cancer drug, an antimicrobial and an antioxidant.

Ecologically, thistles have been planted on contaminated ground to determine if they have a use in the amelioration of such wasteland.

Scotland and the National Emblem:
Why is the thistle the National emblem of Scotland?

It has been said that it is because it reflects the people of the land (probably by Roman soldiers stationed around Hadrian’s Wall). I prefer the story about the Battle of Largs on 2nd October 1263 when an invading Norwegian force attempted to sneak up on the sleeping locals but trod on the local spiny herbage and filled the air with cries of pain (and probably profanity), which woke up the slumbering Scots who subsequently defeated the invading force.

There is some confusion about which species of thistle it was though – The Scottish thistle, Melancholy thistle or even the Spear thistle? There are many native and exotic species of thistle in Scotland so no-one knows for sure.

However, the thistle is a well-respected plant in Scotland and has been shown on coinage as early as the reign of James III, as well as on our current currency. The Order of the Thistle (Founded in 1687) is the second highest order of chivalry in the UK and the thistle emblem is shown on the shirts of National sports teams, the Police uniform and the uniform of The Scots Guards.

So, treat this, often overlooked and derided species with respect because, as on the insignia of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle ‘NEMO ME IMPUNE LACESSIT’ (No one attacks me with impunity).

The Forager Handbook
Invasive Plant Medicine, Herbs and Healing Plants of Britain and Europe
The Wild Flower Key
Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI)
A Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle
Scottish Heritage

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