Wednesday Weed – Creeping Thistle

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Creeping Thistle (Cirsium arvense)

Creeping Thistle (Cirsium arvense)

Dear Readers, no sooner was I back in London following my holiday in Austria, than I galloped down to Coldfall Wood to see what had been going on. And it seemed as if everything had burst into flower while I was away, and was now finishing its reproductive cycle. For most animals and plants, it’s already autumn – summer might be just beginning for us, but the woods are silent, the queen bumblebees are already looking for hibernation spots, and these Creeping Thistles were already mostly transformed into puffy seedheads. But many insects are still appreciating their bounty – thistles seem to be amongst the most valuable plants for pollinators.

White-tailed bumblebee

White-tailed bumblebee

Small Skipper butterfly

Small Skipper butterfly



I imagine that few people would choose to cultivate Creeping Thistle, in spite of its wildlife benefits – like Groundsel or Sow Thistle, it’s one of those plants that looks a bit ramshackle and unkempt on the best of days. Furthermore, it is considered an ‘injurious weed’ in the UK, where it is native, and a ‘noxious weed’ in most countries to which it has been introduced. In Canada, it is known as ‘Canada Weed’, which is surprising as it is an alien species. The name ‘Creeping Thistle’ might imply a shy, diffident plant, but actually refers to the way that the plant surreptitiously takes over a field.

IMG_3688The problem is that Creeping Thistle is just too successful. It forms what are known as ‘Clonal Colonies’, like the one in the picture, where the roots send up multiple shoots and stifle anything else growing in the area, extending its range by up to 6 metres per year. It also sends out cloud upon cloud of fluffy seeds, although only 3% of these are viable, so the main ‘problem’ is with the rhizomes rather than the flowers.It is safe to say that it is not popular with humans, though other creatures may beg to differ.

Goldfinch feeding on Creeping Thistle ("Carduelis carduelis2" by photo MPF - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Goldfinch feeding on Creeping Thistle (“Carduelis carduelis2” by photo MPF – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

The leaves of Creeping Thistle have been used as animal fodder for centuries, usually after being crushed to remove the prickles. The young leaves and stems have also been eaten by humans. The seeds are up to 22% oil, which can be extracted and used as cooking oil or to fuel oil-lamps, though I would imagine that it would be hard work for a small return.

IMG_3690Medicinally, Creeping Thistle has been used by the Mohican and Abnaki tribes for worms, by people in Northern India for fluid retention, and in the north of England, the stems have been used to treat cramp.

IMG_3686So, here we have the Creeping Thistle, a plant that is too generous with its roots and seeds  for gardeners and farmers, but which is a boon for birds and insects. Here on the edge of Muswell Hill Playing Fields, just beside Coldfall Wood, it is a-buzz with all manner of creatures, and  doing no harm at all. And, as the word ‘Thistle’ goes right back to Old English, I imagine that it has been a cause of back-breaking work for hundreds, if not thousands of years. We might just as well rub along as best we can.

7 thoughts on “Wednesday Weed – Creeping Thistle

  1. Ann

    Welcome home to the scruffy thistles of north London! But I’ll bet those Austrian mountains, their plants & creatures, will fill your dreams for a while.

    1. Juliet Jancso

      Have just dug out two trailer loads of thistles, and now I know that they’re going to be spreading quietly underground. Oh dear. But I really enjoy your blog. And I almost feel better that these prickly friends are all going to come back.

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