Ouch — both literally and metaphorically.
I will say pointedly that thistle has some sharp issues. To look at this plant, one might think of a pincushion due to its predilection for prickles. You can find them on its stem, leaves, bracts, and even the single bulbous flower head.
Regardless of its spiky character, its simple presence has historically been a thorny matter due to its reputation as a “sign of untidiness and neglect, being found not so much in barren ground, as in good ground not properly cared for.” Shakespeare would have agreed with this unsavory assessment, as he associated “rough thistles” with “hateful docks,” and even the Bible in Genesis threatened humans, “Thorns also and Thistles shall it bring forth to thee.”
That is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to thistles, which in some places are considered a trash plant. In Australia, an Act of Parliament imposed penalties on anyone who allowed thistles to thrive on their land, while in Britain a “Bill to prevent the spread of noxious weeds in England and Wales” was proposed to keep down this problem plant.
Thistles are often used in the same sentence as the word weed, but I will leave it to you to decide. Or take the opinion of Tigger from Winnie the Pooh who insisted that “Thistles is what Tiggers like best” (although he quickly changed his mind about that.)
Of course there is another side of thistles that might lead to botanical bickering. On a more positive note, thistle is associated with nobility of character and medicinally the roots are good for “treatment of sores, stings, bites, boils and for a swollen vein.”
Thistles are hardy and resistant, and perhaps that’s why the Scots proudly adopted them as the national symbol. In the book Wild Flowers, author Neltje Blanchan relates this story, “When the Danes invaded Scotland, they stole a silent night march upon the Scottish camp by marching barefoot; but a Dane inadvertently stepped on a thistle, and his sudden, sharp cry, arousing the sleeping Scots, saved them and their country; hence the Scotch emblem.”
The Order of the Thistle is the highest knighthood honor in Scotland, equivalent to the Order of the Garter in England. It was founded in 1540 by King James V. Its badge displays the saying “Nemo me impune lacessit,” which can be translated as “No one harms me with impunity” or “without punishment” — a very fitting motto for the thistle.
Insects, too, like thistle. Henry David Thoreau noted, “How many insects a single one attracts! While you sit by it, bee after bee will visit it, and busy himself probing for honey and loading himself with pollen, regardless of your overshadowing presence.” Painted lady butterflies, which use it as a host plant, are another of this flower’s fans.
There are six varieties of thistles found historically on Martha’s Vineyard. While most of them are purple, the least common of the bunch is yellow thistle. Look for it now beginning to bloom in sandplain grasslands and on the borders of salt marshes.
Thistle’s prickly flower will endure throughout the summer. Don’t think of it as a thorn in your side or under your feet. Just as every rose has its thorn, every thistle has its good points as well as bad points.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.