Dear Readers, after two weeks in Austria I am back in an over-heated, parched London and find myself yearning for the fresh breezes of the Alps. So what better to do than to write about one of my favourite plants, the melancholy thistle (Cirsium heterophyllum)? It is true that this is not a southern plant in the UK, preferring the uplands of northern England (where it is known as the shaving-brush plant) and Scotland, but I have occasionally seen it in wildlife gardens in the Capital. Generally, it is found in cold and mountainous areas of Europe and Western Asia, and with its big, solitary flowerheads it is one of the highlights of an Alpine meadow. No sooner has it come into bloom than it is descended upon by bees, butterflies and flower beetles, who seem to swoon into its cerise embrace.
As my regular readers will know, my Dad became ill while I was in Austria, and I am heading off to Dorset to see what’s going on. It’s been a stressful time, and as at today (Sunday) Dad is still in hospital, and is very confused. So, you might think that a subliminal reason for picking the ‘melancholy’ thistle is because of my general mood. I had assumed that the epithet ‘melancholy’ came about because of the single, statuesque flowerheads of the plant, which may appear to slump lethargically when in bud, but Nicholas Culpeper viewed the thistle as a cure for sadness, saying that
“the decoction of the thistle in wine being drank, expels superfluous melancholy out of the body, and makes a man as merry as a cricket; … my opinion is, that it is the best remedy against all melancholy diseases”.
It maketh the finches as happy as crickets in the autumn too, as they love the seeds. Plus, melancholy thistle has no spines. When I think back to those banks of flowers in Obergurgl, it fills me with a kind of joy that, every year, I have been there just at the right time to see the buds opening, and the creatures coming to feast. As I’ve grown older I’ve changed from wanting to skim the surface of a wide range of places to wanting to know them deeply, and it does my heart good to know where I might find the rose chafers, and the secret places where the fritillaries come to feed.
Apparently both the root and the leaves of melancholy thistle are edible, but the roots of all thistles are liable to produce flatulence, and the leaves are too prickly to eat raw. I’d be inclined to leave this one for the critters if I were you. However, the Speyside Distllery has been making some flavoured spirits using ingredients found in the Highlands, and to my delight they have one that includes melancholy thistle, along with
“Scot’s Pine, Sweet Vernal-grass, Juniper, Rowan, Downy Birch and Aspen”
My Dad used to be a distiller of Gordon’s and Tanqueray gin, and he is very unimpressed by the current trend for fancy flavours. Nonetheless I am much intrigued by such concoctions, although at 43% proof a bottle would last me a very, very long time.
I have been considering which poem to use for this plant, and naturally many of them are Scottish – after all, the thistle is the symbol of that fine country. However, the question is, which thistle? While the melancholy thistle has the magnificent flower that we might expect, it is, as already noted, without thorns, and surely part of the symbolism of the Scottish thistle is that it is not to be trifled with. I have therefore, with regret, set Hugh MacDiarmid’s ‘A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle’, and several works by Robert Burns, to one side, as I believe that they refer to the much feistier Spear Thistle.
However Ted Hughes, always a close of observer of nature, wrote a poem about thistles that somewhat hits the spot. I suspect that even this is about a rather spikier thistle than the gentle Cirsium heterophyllum, but it is much too hot here in London to be particular.
Against the rubber tongues of cows and the hoeing hands of men
Thistles spike the summer air
And crackle open under a blue-black pressure.
Every one a revengeful burst
Of resurrection, a grasped fistful
Of splintered weapons and Icelandic frost thrust up
From the underground stain of a decayed Viking.
They are like pale hair and the gutturals of dialects.
Every one manages a plume of blood.
Then they grow grey like men.
Mown down, it is a feud. Their sons appear
Stiff with weapons, fighting back over the same ground.
How martial Ted Hughes sometimes seems! In so many of his poems, nature seems to be about nothing but scrapping and fighting. There is a lot of this, of course, but there is also a lot of co-operation and harmony. I prefer to think of the way that the melancholy thistles open to the fumblings of bees and beetles as being of benefit to both the insects and the plant, but Hughes is much keener on conflict. Ah well. Both our views are true, and they are not mutually exclusive. But just as Western society seems to see tragedy as more ‘real-world’ and more important than comedy, so the gentler aspects of life do not seem as worthy of celebration. I sometimes wonder how the concentration of the arts and media on conflict and destruction skews our psyches, and affects our view of the world.
And so, as a balance to the view of nature as ‘red in tooth and claw’, here is one of my very favourite poems, which doesn’t mention thistles at all, but which somehow accords with my current mood. I am not a creationist, so in answer to the question ‘ Who made the world’ I would answer ‘ a complex interaction between forces’, but the close attention to the grasshopper, and the plea to be in the moment both appeal to me very much.
The Summer Day
Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean- the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down- who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. I don't know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?