Dear Readers, I have always loved thistles, both for the way that they attract a wide range of pollinators, and for their extraordinary flowers. I know that not all gardeners are so impressed, and I’m sure if I’d been inundated with creeping thistle I might feel the same way. However, thistles seem to having their moment in the sun in UK gardens, with everything from cardoons to melancholy thistles popping up all over the place. It’s no wonder, then, that globe thistles were much favoured in Regent’s Park this year. I can’t help thinking that the fact that the plant is currently being marketed as ‘the blue hedgehog thistle’ might also be raising its popularity, although as ‘echinops’ is Greek for ‘hedgehog’ at least it comes by the name honestly.
The flowers of the globe thistle remind me of the Dale Chihuly exhibition that I went to at Kew Gardens recently, especially his sculpture ‘Sapphire Star’.
It isn’t until I looked at the photograph of the flowerhead closely that I could clearly see how the globe is made up of long-throated individual flowers. The plant attracts honeybees and bumblebees, butterflies and shield bugs, beetles and hoverflies. My ‘Gardening for Wildlife’ book by Adrian Thomas suggests three species that are particularly good value for insects: Echinops ritro, Echinops bannaticus (which is the one in the photographs) and Echinops sphaerocephalus, a Russian species with whitish flowers. Some gardeners do mention that they have a spot of bother with the plants self-seeding themselves all over the garden, especially as the flowerheads look so sculptural and are often left over the winter for the birds. All globe thistles are native to Europe, Central Asia and Africa as far south as the mountains north of the tropics, and are part of the daisy family Asteraceae.
The young leaves of the globe thistle are apparently edible, though the Plants For a Future website only gives it a 1 out of 5 for edibility. The leaves are extremely spikey so I imagine they’d have to be very young indeed to be toothsome. In Asia Echinops species have historically been used for a variety of medicinal purposes, including the treatment of skin complaints, sexual problems, issues around breast-feeding and to kill internal parasites. In Morocco it has long been considered helpful during and after childbirth: a decoction of the roots was said to aid the expulsion of the placenta. In Egypt it is used to treat high blood pressure. In short, the different species of Echinops have been used for many of the medical problems that beset humans, and it would be interesting to know how efficacious they are.
In an interesting paper on healing and the folklore of the saints in Russia, Valeria Kolosova explains that the globe thistle Echinops sphaerocephalus is known as ‘Adam’s Head’, and that flowers placed under the pillow are said to prevent a child from having nightmares. The resemblance to a head is also thought to indicate the plant is efficacious against headaches.
As you might remember, I sometimes find that a plant is the ‘birthday flower’ for a particular day. I discovered that Echinops is the flower for the 18th August, and also, finally, where the information comes from: Thomas Ignatius Forster (1789 – 1860) was a botanist, naturalist, poet, balloonist and practical joker who spent a lot of time trying to convince the world that there had once been a monastic calendar of ‘birthday flowers’. To read the whole story (and another interesting piece about the Victorian language of flowers) have a look at this publication by the RHS here.
And now, some poetry. I read with interest that in 2000 the Chelsea Physic Garden had a poet-in-residence, Sarah Maguire, who had also been a professional gardener. Maguire didn’t just want to do a few writing workshops, but instead ‘nested’ complementary poems amongst the plants in the beds that had been planted not for their aesthetic value, but because the plants they contained were related to one another. Many of these plants had not been written about by poets, so Maguire used a process of association. Under the Echinops, for example, she placed John Clare’s poem about a hedgehog:
The hedgehog hides beneath the rotten hedge
And makes a great round nest of grass and sedge,
Or in a bush or in a hollow tree;
And many often stoop and say they see
Him roll and fill his prickles full of crabs
And creep away; and where the magpie dabs
His wing at muddy dyke, in aged root
He makes a nest and fills it full of fruit,
On the hedge bottom hunts for crabs and sloes
And whistles like a cricket as he goes.
It rolls up like a ball or shapeless hog
When gipsies hunt it with their noisy dog;
I’ve seen it in their camps — they call it sweet,
Though black and bitter and unsavoury meat.
Maguire subsequently published an anthology of poems about plants, ‘Flora Poetica – The Chatto Book of Botanical Verse’. However, the state of the world impelled her to found the Poetry Translation Centre, which aimed to;
‘..assemble small groups of linguists, poets, and impassioned readers to produce readable and enjoyable English renditions of poems written in non-English languages. The intended result was equally simple: at a time when an entire people were being demonized to suit geopolitical interests and corporate balance sheets, silence was no longer an option, and translation, Maguire believed, was the “opposite of war,” and she waged that fight just as ruthlessly as the merchants of death she so deeply detested‘. (André Naffis-Sahely from World Literature Today)
Maguire died, aged 60, in 2017, having been the first poet sent to Palestine and Yemen by the British Council, and had been the only living English-language poet with a book in print in Arabic. What a loss to us all.