Thistle: The Pretty Pest

Barbara Bamberger-Scott
18 Min Read

     “The thistle is a prince. Let any man that has an eye for beauty take a view of the whole plant, and where will he see a more expressive grace and symmetry; and where is there a more kingly flower?” ~Henry Ward Beecher

Many of my Appalachian friends, including my dear husband (as his surname implies), came from Scotland, many of them originally from Ireland and “transported” to the New World as indentured servants; others were simply driven to leave by the higher rents imposed by the Scots lords.  These Scots-Irish folks are proud, polite, gracious… and prickly.  They like to go where they like and do as they wish, so many of them sneaked away from hateful overseers in the north and hid out in the shady southern mountains.  The plant that typifies this spirit is one that, like my hubby’s feisty forebears, sneaked in and goes where it likes and does as it pleases. It’s the beautiful, but often despised, thistle.

The Scotch thistle has a big, long, Latin moniker: onopordum acanthium.  Freely translated, it means “thorny weed that donkeys eat.”  (Though another interpretation that I like is “thistle that produces wind in, ahem, asses”: onos = “ass” or donkey;  perdon = “I disperse wind.”  Look it up!)  This image of the donkey, however you choose to stage it, inspired the British to give the plant the moniker “The Eeyore Plant” because thistle was the favorite food of Winnie the Pooh’s dear, if grumpy, donkey pal.

And it’s important to note that, though donkeys may be able to tolerate it, Scotch thistle is impossible for cows to eat.  Its defense mechanism works extremely efficiently on the soft mouths of cattle.

The thistle is a biological paradox.  It has gorgeous flowers, a lovely shade of pinkish-purple, soft and inviting, but those blooms sit atop a stalk that will attack you, viciously, if you try to pick it.  Or even brush your hand along it.  If you’ve ever tried (like me) to uproot one, you know that the thistle plant seems to be literally coated with extremely sharp spines, little ones along the stalk, all the way down and into the ground, and giant ones on every leaf. One pair of gardening gloves is not sufficient protection for grasping this wily weed.

Scotch thistle is native to Europe, and is a member of a very large family, the asteraceae that includes sunflowers, daisies, burdock (which it greatly resembles), plenty of non-aggressive plants, and lots of other kinds of thistle.  But the micro-portrait of this thistle takes us to Scotland, where it apparently proliferated so happily that by the 1500s, it was abundant enough to save the whole country from invaders.  The legend is that Vikings were ready to take over the Scots domain.  Scottish soldiers were alerted and ready, but one night, when all were sleeping, the Vikings crept in for a surprise attack.  The planned conquest was thwarted, though, when a sandaled Norseman stepped full-on into a stand of thistles.

His screams awoke the Scots warriors and saved the country.

However true (or not) this story may be, it’s a fact that by the early 1500s, the thistle had become what we now acknowledge to be the first “national flower,” its unusual contour appearing on heraldic scrolls and shields from then to now.  Legend does not specify the precise variety of thistle, and though the donkey-beloved type is appealing, it could as easily have been milk thistle, or cardus marianus.  The Scots, a proud people, still, even now, trying to wrest independent status from their British occupiers, like to think of the thistle as symbolic of their national character.  It combines beauty, battle-readiness, bravery, and a determination to stay rooted in the land where it has chosen to reside.  The motto accompanying the flower’s picture in the ancient Order of the Thistle is Nemo me impune lacessit” — “No one provokes me with impunity.” But I prefer the Scottish-English translation: “Wha daur meddle wi’ me?”

Thistles were brought here in colonial times, probably for their medicinal uses, and also as ornamental plants, the florets providing quite a show when growing in abundance.  Once it got here, the thistle went where it liked and did as it pleased.  It really likes riverbanks, even ditches, and it is particularly fond of land that has been neglected, or land that looks neglected by virtue of having had all the weeds eliminated.  Oh yeah, give the Eeyore Plant half a chance and it will creep over to where you have just laboriously gotten rid of every stray weed in preparation for a new stand of corn or cabbage.  It is justifiably referred to as “invasive”; if it sees some cleared land, it regards it as an invitation to move right in.

One modern homesteader has had a learning experience with thistles and shares his wisdom on the subject.  Edwin Shank, operating a Mennonite family-farm business, found thistle spreading like, well, like thistle, along his fence rows, after the family had dutifully sprayed the area alongside their cultivated field with Round-up.  This spraying created what Shank calls “competition-free ground”—basically, thistle-ready soil.  Shank says, “Thistles do not compete well with other plants.  They are opportunistic plants and thrive in the absence of beneficial plants like grass, dandelion, and clover.  They love bare ground.  If you have ever noticed how vacant lots and construction zones so often erupt into a rip-roaring thistle bloom, you know what I mean.”  Only when the family let the natural vegetation come back did the thistle give up and go elsewhere: when “clover and other beneficial plants began to grow with a renewed lushness, the thistle population, almost as if by magic, began to die off.  The more we encouraged and supported the beneficial plants the less problematic the pathogenic plants.”

Thistle seems like a real pest so far, doesn’t it?  Its name has been sullied wherever it has presented itself; even Shakespeare called it “rough” and “hateful.”  And no wonder.  If it takes up along riverbanks, it can spoil an area of parkland meant for camping.  And hiking?  Who wants to hike in a thistle jungle?  Just ask that Norse invader!

Thistle is biennial and can only propagate by seed, but once that process has started, you can expect a lot of growth the following year.  Best to get rid of the little boogers before they set seed, right?  Because one Scotch thistle plant can produce thousands of seeds.

But maybe you don’t want to get rid of your thistle plants.  Maybe you suspect that these “pests,” like other kinds of vegetation generally considered invasive or simply annoying, might have positive qualities worth cultivating.

Here’s the good side of thistle (it’s not just for warding off Viking invaders).  Scotch thistle and other thistle varieties were used by the Scots for a lot of healthy, useful purposes.  Specifically, Scotch thistle has been used as a “cardiotonic” to stimulate the heart.  This use is mentioned in the reliable website, WebMD, with the proviso that “there isn’t enough information to know how Scotch thistle might work as a medicine.”  It was used by the ancients for cancers and ulcers; its stalk contains a milky fluid that, like cow’s milk, is used as a remedy for any internal upset.

We don’t know what cancers or cankers or ulcers may have beset our ancestors, because the terms were used in a less medically precise way in our grand- and great-grandparents’ day.  But it’s reasonable to infer that a plant that showed such strength as Scotch thistle could be used to give courage, that is, to foster a “brave heart.”  And anything milky and gooey would look like a natural cure for flaring internal pain.  And over time, these simple assessments have often proven true.

Another odd twist to the thistle profile is that though a cow cannot chew the plants where they grow, the leaves, when chopped up, make excellent animal fodder.

A British website,, adds this information to the plus side of the Scotch thistle ledger from long ago wisdom: “that ‘the leaves and root hereof are a remedy for those that have their bodies drawn backwards,’ and [Nicholas] Culpepper explains that not only is the juice therefore good for a crick in the neck, but also as a remedy for rickets in children.  It was considered also to be good in nervous complaints.”  I speculate that those with their bodies drawn backwards (a horrible image) might have been suffering from tetanus or other poisoning.

But the list of pluses goes on.  Scotch thistle is not only choppable and drinkable, it’s quite edible.  The flowers of the thistle sit on a little globe, and that globe was eaten, and can still be, like an artichoke (the commonly known artichoke is also a thistle, another member of the asteraceae clan).  If you look at it you can see the resemblance.  Other varieties of thistle are also touted for the edibility of the “bud”, as it is called.  But the stems are also a food source, something like celery, boiled after being stripped of all their prickles.  Leaves, and the entire young plant, can be boiled and eaten.  Of course, the thistle does not yield its various parts kindly, and you can imagine that the Scots who decided to eat thistle must have been pretty darn hungry.

Artichoke in bloom.

Still, there are yet other reasons to grow thistle.  Even today, it is said that some people use thistle oil, extracted from the seeds, for lighting and eating (one source says that twelve pounds of seeds may produce about three pounds of oil).

Since Scotch thistle is also known as cotton thistle, this aspect of the plant has not gone unexploited.  The cottony fiber clinging to the stalks was collected by our (very) hardy Scots ancestors and used to stuff pillows.  Ouch!

Another gold star for most kinds of thistles is that the flowers dry well, and can be sold for that purpose or used in home decorating.  One variety especially appreciated for that purpose is called, romantically, Blue Super Nova (aka eryngium), with blooms so big that a single one may fill an entire vase.

It is necessary to warn anyone who decides to cultivate thistles of almost any variety, that, in some places, it is actually banned. You can get in trouble with the law for propagating thistle, and you can alienate your neighbors too, if your thistle decides it likes their newly cleared patch of garden.  Milk thistle, a cousin of the Scotch, begins its cycle as a very prickly, dark-green leaf with white marbling, and winds up with the tall, distinctive purple flowers so dear to the Scots.  Yet despite the well-known medicinal uses of the plant (for liver disorders primarily, though many other claims are made on its behalf) and its undeniably lovely florets, milk thistle (aka Holy Thistle) is classified as a noxious weed in many places, and if found, is required to be eradicated.  In Washington State, for example, it is illegal to sell, transport, distribute, or buy milk thistle.  Canadian thistle creeps, and we know that can’t be a good thing; it has delicate pink flowers and is considered highly invasive despite being a preferred food for many birds and butterflies.  Even those seeking to get rid of it in farmland commend it as an aid in honey production.

Most thistles are on the “Least Wanted” list wherever found.  And the reasoning behind this hands-off, zero-tolerance thistle policy is sound.  Thistles can ruin a farm, as the Shank family nearly found out.

So how would you get rid of thistles if you found them?  Hopefully, like me, you will find only one.  It will be young and perhaps only in the first year of its biennial cycle.  It will be easily uprooted, though you have to be careful to get rid of every bit of the root, or it will come back next year.  Pulling them up is really the optimal method of eradicating thistles.  My advice: wear heavy or double gloves, long sleeves, long pants, and high socks.  Once stung, twice reminded.

Rough, tough thistles are, not surprisingly, quite resistant to most standard pesticides.  As chemistry is applied to the problem, some pesticides have been developed that do work on thistles.  My advice: read the labels of pesticides just as you would for medicines.  Those side effects can be scary.

If you’re like me, or if you’re Scots-Irish like my husband, you may find yourself quite resistant to trying to wipe out a perfectly decent, historically significant, and rather lovely plant just because it has a bad reputation in some circles.  Perhaps you are a bit of an Eeyore, stubborn and hard to please.  Maybe you’d like to explore some of its touted uses or just keep it for a spot of color on the mantle.  Maybe, like Scots poet Robert Burns, when you see a thistle springing up, you will simply decide to “turn the weeding hook aside, and spare the symbol dear.”

If you are not seduced by the thistle’s charms or its store of legends or its practical applications, then follow Edwin Shank’s example.  After all, isn’t it more tolerant, more nature-friendly, and indeed, more sensible in the long run, to ignore the thistle and let it decide on its own when it’s time to hit the road?  It won’t like your well-tended lawn, your heavy cultivation, double digging, raised beds, and such other examples of good agricultural practice.  It avoids well-cared-for land, is persnickety about sharing turf, and will pack up and go.  It probably would have preferred never to have moved at all from the bonny braes of Scotland but now it’s on the run and there’s no turning back.  So leave it alone, let your garden grow, and your Scotch thistle will, in its own time, grumpily, seek another home.

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