Saturday, 16 January 2016

Thistle do!

Scotland's national flower is a prickly customer

A single thistle flower
CC0 public domain image from Flickr
When most people think of Scotland they think of three things: whisky, tartan - and that flowery emblem of Scotland the thistle.

You would think that a flower chosen to represent an entire nation might reflect the beauty, the culture and the friendliness of that nation but not so for Scotland's national flower - the thistle!

Whilst beauty is certainly in the eye of the beholder (and the thistle has a certain ''rough beauty'') it cannot in all fairness be called ''friendly'' as anyone who has encountered its prickly presence will attest.

But it was that very ''prickly presence'' which led to the thistle being chosen as Scotland's national flower - or so the legend goes.

As for the culture it represents, the legend also connects the thistle with invasion, battle and warlike pursuits - hardly friendly at all!

So how did this jagged and unwelcoming plant come to such prominence in representing a nation?

A thistle plant against a black background
By Walter Baxter/Geograph UK CC-BY-SA 2.0
Well, depending on which authority you refer to, the thistle was responsible for alerting a sleeping Scottish army to the hostile intentions of an invading army of Norsemen who thought it a good idea to creep up on them at night.

When one of the invaders stood on a thistle with his bare feet his resulting cries of pain alerted the Scots who promptly fell upon and defeated the invading Norsemen.

Some versions of this story give a different origin for the invading army but, since there is no historical evidence for any of them, let's just say it's a good story and leave it at that!

A thistle by any other name . . .

There is one slight problem when we say that the thistle is Scotland's national flower. No-one is quite sure exactly which thistle we are talking about - there are several species and sub-species which could qualify as candidates.

The spear thistle, the stemless thistle, the cotton thistle, our lady's thistle, the musk thistle and the melancholy thistle (and others) have, at various times been proffered as the ''true'' thistle of Scotland but no-one really knows which was the original thistle.

A big clump of thistles growing on a hillside
Photograph by Richard Dorrell/Geograph UK CC-BY-SA 2.0
The most likely candidate is probably the spear thistle Cirsium vulgare (above and at the head of this article) and when you see it growing as a clump you can understand why it had the affect it had on that poor invading Norsemen. Just imagine stepping into a thistle plant like this with bare feet and legs - ouch!

The spear thistle (which is native to Scotland - some of the others are introduced species) is very common and can be found all over the country  (I have some in my garden) and it is not restricted to Scotland so many of you may be familiar with it and its prickly nature.

Today images of the thistle can be seen used in many ways - on Scottish foods and other products, sports logos, etc., and is one of the most instantly recognisable symbols of Scotland throughout the world.

Interestingly it is also the logo of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, that well-known English language font of knowledge on just about everything. Why? Because the encyclopaedia was first published in the late 1760s in Edinburgh, Scotland's capital city - I'll bet you didn't know that!

Emblem of the Order of the Thistle
Public domain image from Wikipedia
The Order of the Thistle, created in 1540 by King James V, is the highest honour of chivalry in Scotland and the emblem of the Order is the thistle.

The motto of the Order is Nemo me impune lacessit (no-one provokes me with impunity) more commonly translated into broad Scots as Wha daurs meddle wi' me - which is probably how the thistle sees itself!

How dare they!

According to an Act of Parliament of the UK Government (the Weeds Act 1959) the spear thistle is designated as an ''injurious weed'' which gives the Secretary of State the power to enforce control measure against this thistle on private land and if the landowner does not comply they could be subject to a fine of £1000!

I ask you - is that any way to treat Scotland's National Flower?

Sources: Wikipedia (in-text references)


  1. Replies
    1. Glad you like it. Thanks for visiting.

  2. And the bonus is that the thistle, or at least the Milk Thistle is a detox for the liver. No wonder it grows so well everywhere- especially close to the pubs- ha!

    1. The Roman philosopher Pliny also believe it could restore hair to a bald head but, speaking from personal experience, that one doesn't work!

  3. I may have a little scot in me after all... Back a few years ago I was having a problem with gas thieves, so I took the loppers and cut down several agave plants ( known for its sharp spears) I set all those plants right in the path at the back of the woods so that the thieves would also be as surprised as I was to find an empty tank on the car the next morning. By injury I did identify who exactly was stealing my gas :) with that being harsh I finally bought cameras and posted them to see outside :)

    1. Very clever! My car is parked on gravel in my driveway and anyone coming near it can't avoid crunching the gravel. I also have gorse bushes around the perimeter of my garden - we can never be too careful!

  4. We have several species of thistle here in California, too. I battle my husband over the fate of our milk thistles, which I kind of like except in a vegetable garden. I'm not as fond of the bull thistle, and the star thistle is frowned upon here because it is harmful to some animals if they eat it.

    1. The thistles in my garden are part of a ''wildlife corner'' which is never maintained but allowed to grow wild. Amongst the wildlife attracted are several colourful species of butterfly.

  5. Very interesting, here in Colorado you get fined if you have Thistles in your yard. They will fine you up to $500.00.

    1. $500! What's everyone got against the humble thistle?