Thistle

Thistle is the common name of a group of flowering plants characterised by leaves with sharp prickles on the margins, mostly in the family Asteraceae. Prickles often occur all over the plant – on surfaces such as those of the stem and flat parts of leaves. These are an adaptation that protects the plant against herbivorous animals, discouraging them from feeding on the plant. Typically, an involucre with a clasping shape of a cup or urn subtends each of a thistle’s flowerheads.

The term thistle is sometimes taken to mean exactly those plants in the tribe Cynareae (synonym: Cardueae), especially the genera Carduus, Cirsium, and Onopordum. However, plants outside this tribe are sometimes called thistles, and if this is done thistles would form a polyphyletic group.

Thistle is the floral emblem of Scotland.

Taxonomy

thistledown, a method of seed dispersal by wind. The tiny seeds are a favorite of goldfinches and some other small birds.

Genera in the Asteraceae with the word thistle often used in their common names include:

  • Arctium – Burdock
  • Carduus – Musk Thistle and others
  • Carlina – Carline Thistle
  • Centaurea – Star Thistle
  • Cicerbita – Sow Thistle
  • Cirsium – Common Thistle, Field Thistle and others
  • Cnicus – Blessed Thistle
  • Cynara – Artichokes, Cardoon
  • Echinops – Globethistle
  • Notobasis – Syrian thistle
  • Onopordum – Cotton Thistle, also known as Scots or Scotch Thistle
  • Scolymus – Golden Thistle or Oyster Thistle
  • Silybum – Milk Thistle
  • Sonchus – Sow Thistle

Plants in families other than Asteraceae which are sometimes called thistle include:

  • Salsola – Saltwort, Tumbleweed, or Russian Thistle (family Chenopodiaceae)


In the language of flowers, the thistle (like the burr) is an ancient Celtic symbol of nobility of character as well as of birth, for the wounding or provocation of a thistle yields punishment.

The thistle has been the national emblem of Scotland since the reign of Alexander III (1249–1286) and was used on silver coins issued by James III in 1470. It is the symbol of the Order of the Thistle, a high chivalric order of Scotland. It is found in many Scottish symbols and as the name of several Scottish football clubs. The thistle, crowned with the Scottish crown, is the symbol of seven of the eight Scottish Police Forces (the exception being the Northern Constabulary). The thistle is also the emblem of Encyclopædia Britannica, which originated in Edinburgh, Scotland. Carnegie Mellon University features the thistle in its crest.

Origin as a symbol of Scotland

According to a legend, an invading Norse army was attempting to sneak up at night upon a Scottish army’s encampment. During this operation one barefoot Norseman had the misfortune to step upon a thistle, causing him to cry out in pain, thus alerting Scots to the presence of the Norse invaders. Some sources suggest the specific occasion was the Battle of Largs, which marked the beginning of the departure of King Haakon IV (Haakon the Elder) of Norway who, having control of the Northern Isles and Hebrides, had harried the coast of the Kingdom of Scotland for some years.[3] Which species of thistle is referred to in the original legend is disputed. Popular modern usage favours Cotton Thistle Onopordum acanthium, perhaps because of its more imposing appearance, though it is unlikely to have occurred in Scotland in mediaeval times; the Spear Thistle Cirsium vulgare, an abundant native species in Scotland, is a more likely candidate. Other species, including Dwarf Thistle Cirsium acaule, Musk Thistle Carduus nutans, and Melancholy Thistle Cirsium heterophyllum have also been suggested.

Place names

Carduus is the Latin term for a thistle (hence cardoon, chardon in French), and Cardonnacum is the Latin word for a place with thistles. This is believed to be the origin of name of the Burgundy village of Chardonnay, Saône-et-Loire, which in turn is thought to be the home of the famous Chardonnay grape variety.

Ecology

Bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare)

Thistle flowers, along with bugle and brambles flowers, are favourite nectar sources of the Pearl-bordered Fritillary, Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary, High Brown Fritillary, and Dark Green Fritillary butterflies. Thistles (and thistle-seed feeders) also attract the North American goldfinch.

Some thistles (for example Cirsium vulgare, native to Eurasia), have been widely introduced outside their native range.   Control measures include Trichosirocalus weevils, but a problem with this approach, at least in North America, is that the introduced weevils may affect native thistles at least as much as the desired targets.

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