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…..
Dear Readers, I am cheating a little this week as the photos of the spear thistle that I am including come from a field close to where my parents live, in Milborne St Andrew, Dorset. But as this is a wide-spread and abundant ‘weed’, I’m sure there is some within my half-mile, I just have to find it. Plus, as I discovered it during a walk which included almost falling down a rabbit hole and having to vault a five-barred gate (not so easy when one is an unfit townie who last had to climb over a gate thirty years ago) I was determined to feature it. Never let it be said that Bugwoman doesn’t go the extra mile. Well, half-mile anyway.
And, really, who could resist this plant? Yes, it’s what my plant book calls ‘viciously spiny’. Yes, it’s another one of those ‘Injurious Weeds’ in the 1959 Weeds Act. Yes, it grows in ‘rough and grassy places’. But the flowers are so magenta that they make me squint to look at them, and it is the national flower of Scotland, to boot – it was said to be a warning to landlords and others not to meddle with the privileges of the people. This is a plant that is tough and beautiful at the same time, and is also an absolute magnet for bees and butterflies during the summer, and for finches in the winter.Even in October, a ladybird was sitting happily on the leaves, basking in the autumn sunshine and not minding the prickles at all.
How can you tell that what you’re looking at is a Spear Thistle, rather than some other less derided plant? Well, the spines on the bracts (the thing that the flower emerges from) are easily as long and sharp as any other thistle, and, in the right light, you can tell that they are tipped with yellow (you can just about see this in the ladybird picture above). The leaves are dark green with a pale midrib (again you can see this in the picture above). Furthermore, the stem apparently has ‘discontinuous spiny wings’, rather like a kraken one imagines. You can just about make them out (I think) in the photo below.
Spear thistle seems to be particularly fond of old, over-grazed fields, probably because most large animals won’t eat it, and so it survives, in great stands, when everything else has been nibbled down to the roots. It sets seed with great vigour, which is one reason why it made it onto the Weeds Act. However, it does not spread by the roots as creeping thistle does, and is therefore easier to control if you catch it before it those great fluffy clumps of thistledown start to fly past in the breeze.
Spear thistle is a native plant, and so we have had lots of time to get to know it. It has also spread to North America and Australia where it has set up home with typical thistle zeal. It can be eaten – the stems can be peeled and boiled, and roots of young plants can also be added to a vegetable soup or hotpot, though they are described as tasting ‘bland’. A word of warning, however: they contain a lot of inulin, the same chemical that can make the after effects of eating Jerusalem Artichokes such a noisy, pungent and uncomfortable affair.
The genus name Cirsium is derived from the either the Greek word kirsion (a kind of medicinal thistle found in Greece) or the word kirsos which means a swollen vein. It should come as no surprise therefore that spear thistle has been used to prepare an ointment for piles. It has been used for a whole range of other purposes as well, however, particularly as a decoction for joint pain.
One use that has been picked up on both sides of the Atlantic is as tinder – the fluffy thistledown is an excellent fire-starter. The Cherokee people also used the thistledown to for the flights of their blow darts.What is amazing to me, as I continue to hunt out Wednesday Weeds, is how how varied the plants within a single family can be. For example, spear thistle is part of the Asteraceae, or daisy family. Which also includes cornflowers, knapweed, chicory, all the hawkbits and hawkweeds and dandelions and our friend from last week, Bristly Oxtongue. It includes goldenrod, the fleabanes (Mexican and Canadian amongst others), sowthistle, tansy and feverfew. It embraces yarrow and hemp agrimony, fox and cubs and pineappleweed, the mayweeds and chamomile and a whole raft of ragworts. To come to terms with the Asteraceae is a challenge in itself, without all the rest of the plant families. Although in the UK we have an impoverished flora compared to the rest of Europe (the most recent Ice Age did for many of our plant species, though we are blessed with more than our share of mosses and liverworts) there is more than enough to keep the Wednesday Weed going for a good few years. Which is a relief, as every week I find myself more and more enthused about the plant community that’s all around us. There is so much still to discover and learn! Thank you for coming along with me.
Unless otherwise stated, all photos are copyright Vivienne Palmer.
The Goldfinch photo is by Andreas Trepte (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
The thistledown photo is by John Tann from Sydney, Australia (Spear thistle) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons