Yesterday, my son brought home some huge thistles he noticed in a field while making his rounds for work. They’re beautiful in color and terrifying in their sharp spines and thorns. Huge thistles have quite huge sharp thorns. We handled the stem very carefully to get it placed in water. I then felt compelled to look up the weedy flower to find what type of thistle it was.
Based on flower color and size, globe-shaped disc, and leaf comparison, I deduced it was an Artichoke Thistle, or the Cynara cardunculus. It grows 3 to 6 feet tall, has a large bright purple flower head, and “its leaves sport some very nasty spines.” (http://www.ocagcomm.com/abatement/weeds) Yeah, that’s the one; that’s the pretty, thorny baby sitting on my counter. It’s named after the artichoke because the base of the flower head is a spiked globe, which looks very much like an actual artichoke.
The peeled, fleshy stalks of this thistle are used as a vegetable in Europe. It’s said to have a complex and interesting taste very similar to real artichokes, once cooked. Perhaps all this is because the artichoke is a relative of the thistle. Before using these stalks in recipes, it’s best to pre-cook 3“-4“ cut lengths in a pot of salted water with lemon juice. Simmer about 25 minutes, until tender.
Unfortunately, here in California, it is considered a “non-native noxious weed” that needs to be eradicated. This is mainly because it is a prolific spreader (keep your thistles contained!), and once the foliage dies off in late Summer, it becomes a fire hazard. It also makes rangeland unusable and increases soil and water erosion. Problems, to be sure; as one living in Southern California, I see the real dangers posed.
However, there is another side to my relationship with the lowly thistle. Check out my last name: Stirling. As in Clan Stirling, Scotland. With Stirlingshire (County Stirling), the city of Stirling, Stirling University, and Stirling Castle. The Battle of Stirling Bridge is where William Wallace fought his great battle against the English in the first war for Scottish Independence (the blue face, remember?). I have a tartan. My Celtic roots run deep. Guess what the National Emblem of Scotland is. Give up? It’s the Scottish Thistle. Yay, thistles! (Ugh, tried to do a cheerleader jump with that, and now I can’t get up off the floor.)
Are you wondering why a country would choose a weed as their National Flower? (Say yes. C’mon, say yes) Well, I’ll tell you. Here’s a story (but not of a lovely lady), a legend of how the thistle saved Scotland. Actually, there’s some disagreement as to which is the correct legend. That’s not unusual considering we’re talking about Scotsmen. We all love a good story, and a good argument. Generally over beer or whiskey.
Legend #1: The Scots were being harassed by Norsemen raiding and attacking along the coastline, as Vikings were want to do. One night, the Norse landed near an area where the Scots were gathered to do battle with them. The Scots were asleep under the stars and the Vikings, wanting to sneak up on them, removed their shoes. They moved quietly across the thistle-spiked fields until one unfortunate Norseman stepped on a thistle. As the sharp spines dug deep into his foot, he let out a shriek of pain and probably a few choice words. The Scots awoke and quickly disposed of the Vikings.
Legend #2: This version basically agrees with the above, with some expansiveness (another worthy Scottish trait). This particular event is associated with the Battle of Largs. In the late summer of 1263, the King of Norway planned an invasion of Scotland. Due to storms and winds, the longships were forced to land on the beach at Largs in Ayrshire. They made the best of it and started moving across the land. As they came to an area where the clansmen were gathered in sleep, they removed their boots. Once again, they planned to creep quietly through the night, until the Vikings stepped on those lovely thistles. Their screams awoke the Scots, who fought them in the Battle of Largs and stopped the invasion. This brings us to a particularly fun version with…
Legend #3: This time it was the Danes, in the 11th Century, attempting to attack a Scottish Castle. It was night, and the Danes removed their shoes to mask the sound of their approach. As they neared the castle, they could make out a moat surrounding it and planned to swim across. When they reached the edge, they jumped into the dug-out fortification. Instead of landing in water, they painfully discovered the moat was filled with thistles. The Danes made a limping retreat.
Whichever version you accept as the correct history, the one consistency is that the prickly thistle saved the day. In recognition and honor of the role this plant played, it was quickly adopted as the National Emblem and symbol of Scotland. Very fitting when you think of it; sharp, tough, and impossible to remove from the land without a fight. Just like the Scottish. On the emblem, the Scotch Thistle is accompanied by a motto: “Nemo me impune lacessit”, meaning “No one harms me without punishment” or “No one assails me with impunity”, depending on who you ask. Commonly it is read as “Wha daur meddle wi’ me”, which I think looks very much like “Who dares meddle with me”. Certainly a warning to beware.
Now you know why the Scots chose the Scotch Thistle to represent them. Of course, we’re talking about Scots here. So, this isn’t the end of the story, because now there’s the argument discussion about which variety of thistle is THE thistle. The current favorite is the Cotton Thistle, Onopordum acanthium, perhaps because it has a very imposing prickly appearance. Unfortunately, it appears this thistle was not present in Medieval times. More likely it is the Spear Thistle, Cirsium vulgare, an abundent species native to Scotland. But, it doesn’t stop there. We still have other contenders: the Dwarf Thistle, Cirsium acaule, Musk Thistle, Carduus nutans, Melancholy Thistle, Cirsium heterophyllum, Stemless Thistle, Onopordum acaulon, and Our Lady’s Thistle, Silybum marianum (which has great medicinal properties).
For simplicity’s sake, we’ll go with the modern choice of the Cotton Thistle. It acquired its name from the white downy covering on its young leaves. This covering can easily be rubbed off and resembles cotton. So much so, it has even been used to stuff pillows. There are many other reported practical uses for this plant. Oil can be expressed from the seeds using heat, and has been used in lamps and for ordinary culinary purposes. Supposedly, twelve pounds of seeds will produce about three pounds of oil. There’s also varied medicinal uses.
The Scottish Thistle holds such a special place in the hearts of the Scots that it came to signify the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, the Scottish order of chivalry, or Knighthood. It represents the highest honor in Scotland. The Order honors Scottish men and women who have held public office or who have contributed in a particular way to national life. Only the Queen (or King, someday) grants membership to the Order; the Government has no say in this decision.
Linda Williams Stirling (This is the silver thistle necklace I got when I visited Scotland.)