Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum)
A series following the 72 British mini-seasons of Nature’s Calendar by Kiera Chapman, Lulah Ellender, Rowan Jaines and Rebecca Warren.
Dear Readers, it might appear that I’ve become teasel-obsessed, but clearly I’m not the only one! In Nature’s Calendar, Lulah Ellender has an interesting piece on teasels. While I was familiar with some of it (see the ‘Wednesday Weed’ piece below), I had no idea that teasels had so many vernacular names, from ‘barbers’ brushes’, ‘donkey’s thistle’ and ‘brushes and combs’ to ‘Venus’s basin’ because of the way that the water gathers in the little ‘bowls’ at the bottom of the leaves. I had been intrigued by thoughts that the plant was on its way to insectivory, because one study showed that plants with drowned insects in the ‘basins’ did better than others. Ellender points out that a second study hasn’t borne this out, though, so more research is needed!
And here’s a poem by John McCullough, written in 2008. I remember seeing something very similar to this in Dorset when I used to visit Mum and Dad – the teenagers wreaking havoc through the quiet rural lanes, so full of energy that it felt as if they might burst. The ‘quivering teasel’ really reminds me of how the plant stands as a sentinel in a variety of unloved, damp places – ditches swamped with Himalayan balsam and rusting farm detritus, those strange rubble-y piles beside gates where something was dumped and is slowly returning to the soil.
In humid months, at the estate’s unwatched edge
the boys hook up for an after-hours cigarette
before trashing field gates. Dazzle of white Reeboks, bling,
practised geezer-laughs rev-revving
with the engines of graffiti tagged bangers.
Customised stereos thump out this week’s garage,
the race kicking off in a blizzard of chalk dust,
a bouncing charge up the crumbling, fossil-built rise.
Death and dew ponds can’t stop them while they swerve
past quivering teasel, conquer the bone ridge’s turn,
skeins of wool lifting from gorse as banners
for the night’s whooping, fist-raising winners.
Further off, the crews unite for a slow drift, melt into hills
but leave the empty sky with headlamp trails:
blazing ghosts still performing their necessary work,
still scribbling their names on the dark.
And now, here’s a revisit of my Wednesday Weed on teasel, from (gosh) 2015.
On a grey, damp day at the end of February, I went with my friend Ann to see what weeds I could find in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery. A stream runs along the far north-eastern edge of the area and there, silhouetted against the sky, we found the unmistakable seedheads of the Teasel.
Teasel, for all its grass-like appearance, is in fact a member of the Scabious family, and like scabious, it has a lot of wildlife value – I have seen whole families of goldfinches dangling from the stems and pulling out the seeds, and in summer, the flowers are loved by bees and other pollinators.
Blue Tits on Teasel by Archibald Thorburn
The Teasel flower itself is remarkable. In July, a band of flowers opens around the middle of the head, as below:
Then, gradually, the band separates into two ‘stripes’, one moving up the seed head, the other moving down.
The band of flowers has now separated into two bands ( © Copyright Gerald England and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)
For some truly beautiful close-ups of the Teasel, have a look at the photos by Brian Johnston here.
A close relative of ‘our’ teasel, Fuller’s Teasel (Dipsacus sativum) was extensively used in the textile industry. The plant was used to ‘raise the nap’ on woollen fabric, particularly for such delicate jobs as treating the green baize covering on billiard tables (and indeed they are still used for this purpose, having proved to be the most efficacious way of performing this task). For anyone who would like to know more about the process, and about the history of baize, I can heartily recommend the Pegs and Tails website, which is full of arcane and interesting facts and photos. The seed heads were attached to a machine such as the Teasel Gig below, from the Somerset Levels.
Teasel Gig from the Somerset Levels ( © Copyright Noel Jenkins and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)
A single dried teasel head (“Teasel” by Loggie-log (aka Loggie) – Own work. )
By the twentieth century, the Teasel gigs had been largely replaced by metal combs. However, many weavers still swear by the Teasel heads – they don’t tear the cloth as metal items sometimes do, and are, of course, cheaper to grow or to harvest. And the Wild Teasel that I saw in the cemetery has also had its part to play – though the spines are weaker than those of Fuller’s teasel, they have still been used for gently carding wool, a process that ‘teases’ out the separate threads for spinning.
Fuller’s teasel was taken to Virginia in the USA by the early settlers for their woollen industry, although there it has proved to be something of a thug. It can grow surprisingly tall given half a chance.
Deer up to her ears in teasel (Hagerty Ryan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
In a winter garden, or in floristry, Teasels also have a kind of sculptural majesty, especially in autumn, where the low sunlight shows them to their best advantage.
Photo by William Radke, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Public domain)
One very interesting feature of the teasel is that when young, the leaves of the plant form a kind of continuous cup, which holds water when it rains. This prevents insects from climbing up the stem, and drowns a good number of those who try. There is some evidence that the insects that are thus left rotting are absorbed by the plant, in a form of partial carnivory – plants that have such ‘food’ seem to have a larger seedset than those who don’t.
Water storage at the base of the teasel plant (“Dipsacus-fullonum-water-storage”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
It’s also interesting that this is the very water that is said to have rejuvenating powers: it has also been used to remove freckles, and as an eye bath for those suffering from hay fever.
The structure of the Teasel seed head fascinates me. It looks a little like a small hedgehog, or some kind of many-spiked sea creature. It doesn’t surprise me at all that there is an Irish belief that a teasel head left on a grave will distract the Banshees, who will use it as a hairbrush. It is one of those plants which look almost otherworldly, a spiky character full of strange secrets and a most particular beauty.