Thistles and Thistle -like Flowers a Sequel to Daisy like Cultivars and Their Wild Relatives.

Notes from a Lancashire Countryman.

We have already met with some of the wild relatives of the daisy flowers of the garden cultivars in the hub " DAISY-LIKE CULTIVARS AND THEIR WILD RELATIVES" In this sequel we meet with members of that family {Asteraceae} which are thistles along with those which produce thistle-like flowers.

We encounter our first subject in a diverse assortment of habitat such as pastures, meadows, farmland and waste places. The Creeping Thistle Cirsium arvense. This species is a bane to gardeners, and especially to those who garden on allotments where any neglected land can become colonised very quickly. Where such colonies occur they form an impenetrable barrier to most people and larger animals.. It is a brave man that will attempt to pass through these spiny sentinels , thus they make a safe haven for birds, small mammals and those that belong to insect land. I have often come upon thistles during mid-summer when there seems to be a butterfly clinging to each one of them.


the creeping thistle makes an impenetrable barrier. Photograph by D.A.L.
the creeping thistle makes an impenetrable barrier. Photograph by D.A.L.

The stems of this troublesome plant are hairy, but, unlike many others of their ilk, they lack spines or wings.However, the the elongated lobed leaves are very spiny. The flowers although not like those of the daisy are made up of tubular florets of a pale purple or pink. Sometimes lilac coloured specimens are found and rarely all white thistle flowers may be encountered.

They are borne above narrow small bracts which are themselves softly spiny. These copious flowers are succeeded by untidy feathery plumes which eventually carry the seeds by aid of the wind far and wide, parachute like,to localities new. These untidy plumes were once gathered by country people who used them for tinder. They were also used to stuff cushions and pillows. As its common name suggests the perennial root system is aggressive cutting through the soil with ease. It quickly invades recently turned soil and spreads freely.

The young shoots can be boiled and eaten. The seeds are are consumed with relish by birds such as the goldfinch. The plant attains the height of 60-100cm{three and a half feet}. They flower from June until September.

Another thistle, much larger in stature, and with much imposing foliage is the Spear Thistle,Cirsiun vulgare. This impressive plant is far more prickly than the previous species but they tend to grow singly or in twos and threes rather than clumps or stands.

The plant produces deep green leaves which are generally paler beneath, and as the common name suggests are spear shaped. The leaves are deeply cut into forming lobes that are terminated by sharp, stiff spines.

The distinctive flower heads of the spear thistle. Photograph by D.A.L.
The distinctive flower heads of the spear thistle. Photograph by D.A.L.

The stems which attain the height of up to 150cm {5ft} has small irregular, triangular wings that are armed with spines. The large flower head which is somewhat mushroom like in shape is also impressive. Part of the flower head is enclosed in a vase shaped structure of bracts, each bract tapers to a fine narrow point. The florets that stand at the summit of this structure and are of a bluish purple colour spread out fan like. Each flower head is 2-4cm {one to one and half inches} wide. They flower from July  until October and are succeeded like the previous species with a large  feathery pappus which parachutes the seed away from the parent plant. Unlike the previous species the root is biennial in nature and has no inclination to spread.

Many thistles were utilised in medicine or for culinary purposes in days gone by. The Cotton thistle Onopordium acanthium. The young stems and flower heads can be eaten. In Homeopathy  they are employed against circulatory problems.

The milk thistle Silybum marianium is probably the most familiar and commercially made products are readily available.

Milk thistle is still utilised in medicinal products that are readily available. Photograph courtesy of Lorch.
Milk thistle is still utilised in medicinal products that are readily available. Photograph courtesy of Lorch.

They are so called because of the milky white veins on the foliage. The plant was used against liver complaints, including jaundice,infections,and cirrhosis. They were also utilised to treat coughs, travel sickness and depression. A substance called Silymarin extracted from the seeds is a proven protector of the liver discouraging toxin from such sources as alcohol. 

The marsh thistle as it name suggests grows in damp meadows and on wet boggy ground. Photograph by D.A.L.
The marsh thistle as it name suggests grows in damp meadows and on wet boggy ground. Photograph by D.A.L.

Next we come upon the plants that have thistle like flowers but lack the spiny foliage of their more aggressive relations. Our first subject is the common knapweed Centaurea nigra.. It is a species of meadows, among scrub, on embankments and roadside verges. It is one of my favourite plants. The flower heads are indeed like those of the thistles. The flower head is composed of tightly closed,hard bracts which overlap each other. These were thought to superficially resemble the small knobs that were fitted to drawers and cupboards in more archaic times. the old English word for knob was nap, hence the plants common name. The florets above the bracts are all of a similar length, and are of a purplish red colouring. each flower head is 2-3cm {one and a quarter inches}. The flowers of this species are an attractive addition to a vase of cut flowers and last in water for many days.

The tight flower buds of knapweed.Photograph by D.A.L.
The tight flower buds of knapweed.Photograph by D.A.L.
The thistle like flowers last a long time in water.Photograph by D.A.L.
The thistle like flowers last a long time in water.Photograph by D.A.L.
This close up of the knapweed flower is courtesy of Maedin Tureaud
This close up of the knapweed flower is courtesy of Maedin Tureaud

The foliage of the common knapweed is simple, ie, no lobes and no spines.The foliage is narrow tapering to a long point. The midrib vein is prominent. Some of the lower foliage has widely spaced teeth. The plant is much branched. They flower from June until September.

Another plant with thistle like flowers is the Burdock. The greater burdock Articum lappa is a mighty impressive plant well known by children who call them sticky bobs, alluding to the way they stick to clothing and animal fur. This is a tall growing plant reaching the height of up to160cm{1.5M} with a wide spreading habit. It is a robust species which tends to form clumps in woodland clearings,waste land, and hedgerows. However, it does not like to dwell in deep shade.



Flower buds of the Greater burdock.Photograph by D.A.L.
Flower buds of the Greater burdock.Photograph by D.A.L.
The large impressive foliage of the greater burdock.Photograph by D.A.L.
The large impressive foliage of the greater burdock.Photograph by D.A.L.

The foliage is large, staled, broadly oval and pointed up to 50cm long. They are green above with felty hairs beneath. It is flower heads that convey their relationship with the thistles. Like their cousins they have florets tubular in form of a purplish colour, rarely white forms are encountered.

We now meet with the sow thistles of which there are three common types. The Perennial sow thistle Sonchus arvensis.The smooth sow thistle S.oleraceus and the prickly sow thistle, are superficially similar in form only the flowers differ, the blooms of this species are much larger being 4-5cm wide. While those of the smooth sow thistle measure 2-3cm wide. All species of sow thistle sport dandelion like blooms , being yellow and composed of strap shaped ray florets. They are in the main late summer flowers beginning in June and continuing until late October. The foliage clasps the stems.

Thistle like foliage and dandelion like flowers are diagnostic features of the sow thistles. Photograph by D.A.L.
Thistle like foliage and dandelion like flowers are diagnostic features of the sow thistles. Photograph by D.A.L.

As mentioned previously this is the second hub looking at the wild members of the Family Asteraceae. However we have only touched on a small representation thus far. It will take more hubs to do the family justice which I will endeavour  to publish some time in the near future.

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Comments 3 comments

D.A.L. profile image

D.A.L. 6 years ago from Lancashire north west England Author

Darski, thank you once again my friend for your kind comments. You are always appreciated, and first to visit again!

Kgnature, thank you for visiting so soon and for taking the time to comment.


kgnature profile image

kgnature 6 years ago from North Carolina

Lots of info here. Thanks.


Darlene Sabella profile image

Darlene Sabella 6 years ago from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ...

Some of those plants look mean and nasty to the touch, and yet the colors were as if you picked out your pallet for your paint brush to paint. The purple of purples are so bright, purple is know for it's protective powers. Rate up and love your hub...

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