They are a prickly subject but thistles will pop up and grow anywhere
- Credit: Casey Cooper-Fiske
In a week where football has captured the headlines and imagination of the nation, I have also been following the Tour de France and the glorious fields of lavender and sunflowers. Being the ‘plant tragic’ that I am, my green fingers have been pausing the remote on close ups of wild flowers and French fields.
Unfortunately for the group of the cyclists who poured into a ravine outside Carcassonne it seemed to be full of bayonet armoured thistles. They appeared to be much taller and thicker than their native UK cousins. There are 14 British species of thistle, some more welcome than others in our gardens and fields.
They are the most successful of plants and will seemingly grow on fresh air in the most inhospitable of places. Think of any heap of derelict rubble and there will be a thistle shouldering its way through the cement and brickwork for certain.
Many of the thistle family are cultivated and provide constructional shape for the even the neatest of green outdoor spaces. Echinops ‘ritro’ is one such plant and forms sapphire blue, spiked globes that force themselves up to six foot in height without too much knowledge or care. Ideal for the back, or corner of the border. Like most thistles they don’t like to be moved to a new position and they almost all enjoy good drainage and sunshine. They also share the thistle characteristic of easily self seeding.
This is a double edged sword as they can be prolific yet also can’t be moved without difficulty. The echinops in my garden love to just appear about two feet tall in the most unusual places like at the base of an apple tree or coming up through the middle of the sweet williams.
It must be one of the sights of a true midsummer to see the orange sun setting through a haze of downy floating seed heads on their way to lodge into a crack in the pavement or a dry stone wall.
We can also fuss over thistles like cardoons, eryngiums (Sea holly) and the familiar Scottish thistle (Onopurdum acanthium) at home without giving a thought to the fact that elsewhere they might be construed as a problem plant.
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If you want to encourage birds and other wildlife into your garden, any kind of thistle is a great idea. The seedheads provide rich pickings for many garden birds, especially the spectacular goldfinch. Bees and other insects love cris-crossing the purple buzz cut in search of nectar.
Even the burdock is a type of thistle that grows the sticky burrs that we’re so fond of pulling from our jumpers (or fleeces to be more updated) and pets. This is another ingenious survival mechanism the thistle has evolved alongside its Russian spy like ability to exude a chemical that weakens most grass, promoting their ability to grow.
In botanical terms the thistle is a biennial or a perennial that doesn't last too long. Whilst they are in flower they look beautiful and their pastel purple is a decent contrast to most colours in the garden. They can be inter planted with anything yellow to offer an effective contrast in the same way I always think they look good amongst the dandelions.
We can’t talk about thistles without mentioning the first thing that comes to mind. Their prickles seem to be the most penetrative of needles. Even the blackthorn or rosebush doesn't seem to have the lasting impact of the tiny hairs of the thistle. Using industrial standard gardening gloves is the only defence when weeding or handling them.
Infamously the thistle has held legendary status in Scottish history since 1263 after the Norwegians were surprised by stepping on prickles and woke up the Scots, stirring them into winning the battle. Surprisingly enough the Scottish thistle or Cotton thistle isn't easily found growing there these days.