A range of flowers in Colins Paddock

Map of the Down

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Thistles - Cirsium arvense and Cirsium vulgare

thistle1In the beginning, of course, it was all Adam's fault. One bite of that forbidden fruit and it was "Cursed is the ground for thy sake, ...thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee..." and, ever since, thistles have been both a curse and cursed. As a boy I earned my first wages leading horses in Norfolk harvest fields and I still remember the comments when a sheaf containing "jagger-nettles" (as we called them) was pitched to the man on the wagon.

thistle2Of the two species of Cirsium found on the Down, it is the perennial creeping thistle (C. arvense) which is the farmer's worst enemy. Once introduced into a field it spreads by means of creeping lateral roots to form large dense patches which were extremely difficult to eradicate in the days before modern herbicides. The biennial spear thistle (C. vulgare) spreads only by seeds so tends to occur as isolated plants in a field.

But it was the Fruit of Knowledge of Good and Evil which Adam is supposed to have eaten and his descendants soon came to know that there is some good even in thistles. Thistle leaves crushed to break off the spines were once used to provide valuable fodder for cattle and horses, thistle seed are a favourite food of that delightful bird the goldfinch, the plants have been used in herbal medicine (Culpeper claimed that they would cure bad breath and B.O.!) and, of course, the rich purple, almost heraldic, flowers of the spear thistle have their own bold beauty.

In the summer look for the creeping thistles bearing the bright yellow pustules of the rust fungus Puccinia sauveolens. The rust gives the plants a somewhat sweet smell - the only plant pathogen that I know of which has such a pleasing property. Later the fungus produces dark pustules of resting spores and then the scent is lost.

And finally, for those who like bits of absolutely useless information, the head of a spear thistle dropped into milk will curdle it. Try it and see.

David Yarham
April 2001

See also...

Report of the visit from Cambridge Natural History Society in August 2017


News about a visit by the local branch of Butterfly Conservation charity taking place in August 2016


News about the very special area of Colin's Bank, published in February 2015

Pasque Flower

One of our Friends sent us this beautiful picture of some Pasque Flowers taken in amongst the Cowslips in May 2016.pasqueflower_jb_may2016_crop_453

Photo by Jill Butler