Thistles

The worst part of winter is yet to come. The herbaceous plants (those without woody stems) are busy withering away, yet a brand new, plump, juicy Spiny Thistle (Cirisium horridulum) has popped up out of the ground by Camp Salmen’s mailbox. So how come?

 

 

Firstly, winter and early spring are simply their season. There is not much in the way of competition, so they take full advantage of the situation. They also possess a short list of winterizing traits - an antifreeze solution of salts, sugars and other elements in their juices, toughened cell walls, compact leaves and proximity to the warm earth.

 

These plants have an unusual pattern of growth. They start out as a flat stack of spiky leaves arranged in concentric rings on the ground. This stage is spectacular in itself, some span over a foot across. It’s what they do next that is really strange. When the moment is right, the main stalk in the center grows upward, taking each layer of leaf-rings from the stack with it, one at a time, from the center out, until the complete plant stands on its tall, succulent stalk with pinkish flowers on top. The flowers are favorite forage for honeybees and other insects.

 

 A young thistle plant before going vertical.

 

Once winter releases its death grip, the plant’s population really takes off. They especially like open lots and pastureland, where their numbers can be a bane to farmers and ranchers. The imposing, spiked leaves guard the tempting stalks, and grazing animals with tender mouths can get injured (the plant isn’t called horridulum for nothing). However, livestock scientists have actually developed a training program for cattle (who have tough enough mouths to ingest the weed) that gets them to include thistles in their grazing diet.

 

 A thistle about half way through its growth spurt.

 

 

The plant’s stalks are also the desire of culinarily adventurous humans. Thistles are said to taste like celery but one had better be wearing leather gloves if one wants to grab these things to jerk them out of the ground and try peeling away the leaves.

 

Thistles are a national symbol in Scotland and show up on their flags, crests and heraldry. The plants prickly pugnacity and tenaciousness reflects the national character — “Mess with me and you’ll likely come away hurt.”

 

 A mature thistle forest.

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