The Thistle’s Prickly History

10 03 2013

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Thistles are considered an invasive weed, a downright pest, in the United States and parts of the United Kingdom. Their prickly presence spreads across open fields and takes hostage prime grain-growing land. It snags on the clothing and skin of outdoor enthusiasts. Can you ascertain that I’ve often fallen victim to its clutches? Regardless of the thistle’s bad reputation, the Spear Thistle actually is quite eye-catching in the summer and fall, rising above emerald blades of grass with its majestic purple flower and cottony white down that beckons hoards of bees.

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I’m not the only one to appreciate this divergence of nature. Scottish King Alexander III chose the thistle as Scotland’s official emblem of defense in the 1200s. Why would he do such a thing? Well, at that time, Scotland belonged to Norway but was a neglected region, so, of course, uprisings occurred. Legend is that the Norse army was sent in the night to squelch the Scottish rebellion. The Norsemen removed their boots for a quieter sneak attack on sleeping Clansmen. When they reached a field of thistles—barefoot—a Norseman stepped on one and yelped in pain, awaking, alerting and ultimately saving the entire Scottish army in what is called Battle of Largs. Oops. I would’ve hated being that guy! Later, in the 1400s, Scottish King James III first used the thistle as the royal symbol on a silver coin.

So how does this history pertain to the Pacific Northwest in March? The thistle abundantly grows in our similar climate. It’s also more than the national emblem of Scotland; it’s a common Celtic symbol in general. And, a lot of us have a Celtic background and like to celebrate that throughout the month of March. Celtic is a broad term that includes more of us than initially realized. Celts once encompassed Europe all the way down to Hungary. Those in the Danube Region were called “Lowland Celts.” (I love that area, particularly Budapest, one of my favorite cities in the world to visit.) The modern term “Celt” usually now just refers to England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales and has little religious connotation worldwide, though many Celts understandably disagree on both points. The Spear Thistle is called Cotton Thistle in Scotland and Feochadan colgach in Ireland.

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This time of year, the Spear Thistle stands in barren fields, looking much different after months of winter. Their tall, thorny brown stems uphold brown stickery globes. They’ve lost some beauty but not their use. Carefully prune and arrange them as a bouquet, alone or with flowers. Or, spray paint the globes and nestle among greenery, in a vase, or as a collection in a clear container for an interesting addition. This adds great texture to any room!

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