One day a year or two back a local farmer stopped me with a wave of his hand and a smile.
‘You’re the woman that takes photographs,’ he said.
I could hardly deny it as my camera was dangling from my fingers.
‘I’ve been trying to speak to you for ages,’ he added, ‘have you ever seen a white thistle?’
I squinted at him and shook my head then remembered having noticed white multi-headed thistles which I now know are Cirsium arvense.
‘No,’ came his dismissive reply, ‘the proper thistles, the big anes, I have them growing over there,’ and he pointed to the track leading to his house.
As it happened it was late in the season and there were none for me to see but I vowed to check them out the following year and capture the unusual blooms with my camera. In the meantime I urged my friendly farmer to get in touch with someone, anyone – perhaps at the university – who might know about white thistles.
The farmer was Leslie Angus and he was keen to share his most unusual thistles with the world but he was a busy man with better things to do with his time.
As luck would have it the following summer none of the white thistles flowered so I had to content myself photographing the common but pretty purple ones. The year after that I was chatting to Mr Angus and mentioned that they hadn’t flowered again but he put me right – they had but in a different site and as I hadn’t been out so often during the poor summer our paths hadn’t crossed and I had missed another opportunity to see them.
This summer things were very different. The weather was lovely and the conditions for walking were benign.
Mr Angus met me one day in a state of excitement. ‘I was hoping to catch you, they’re flowering.’
He led me into one of his parks and we made our way past a herd of curious cattle to the place where the white thistles grow.
They were magnificent. He hadn’t imagined them nor had he been pulling my leg. There they were; bold, striking and very, very white.
I took a few pictures and went home to investigate incidences of white thistles but then I happened to glance at a restaurant review in a local newspaper and was astonished at one of life’s coincidences; a photograph of a table arrangement included a single white thistle. On closer inspection it didn’t look quite right. I phoned the restaurant and its bemused owner informed me his thistles were indeed artificial.
Artificial white thistles seem to be quite popular; they are used as buttonholes for weddings as any glance at Google images will confirm. It so happens that Carole, Mr Angus’ daughter, has her own florist business and this summer one lucky groom actually sported a genuine white thistle in his buttonhole at his wedding.
White thistles do exist. The aforementioned Cirsium arvense frequently display white blooms and worldwide different varieties of thistle include several whites but they are rare among Cirsium vulgare, the spear thistle – the one we see at roadsides and around edges of fields.
Thistles in the wrong place can be the bane of farmers’ lives. They are tenacious once they get into the soil and a pest to weed out. Not that Mr Angus minds. He appreciates their exquisite rarity. While the purples are grand the spectacle of one or two whites among them makes them even more special.
The thistle has been Scotland’s flower emblem for nearly 1000 years from the reign of Alexander III when its jabbiness was supposed to have caused barefoot Norse invaders so much pain when they trod on them they cried out and alerted the Scottish guard. The thistle became the symbol of the House of Stuart, the oldest Scottish chivalric medal is the Order of the Thistle and where would Scottish regiments be without a thistle to decorate their bonnets? The plant has given its name to sports clubs and is the motif for a host of organisations and businesses including the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Carnegie Mellon University and the Perelman School of Medicine, Pennsylvania in recognition of their Scottish roots.
Scotland’s national flower is the thistle but which one is a moot point. Some say it is the aforementioned Cirsium vulgare while others declare it Onopordum acanthium, the woolly or cotton thistle, but there are doubts over how long that species has grown in Scotland. The same caution applies to Carduus lanceolatus and what of the dwarf thistle Cirsium acaule or the musk thistle Carduus nutans? How about the melancholy thistle Cirsium heterophyllum or Carduus benedictus, Lady’s Thistle? Carlina vulgaris is a member of the same family and has pale flowers but it hardly fits the bill. The list of thistles goes on and really whichever was the original emblem doesn’t matter too much. There are possibly as many opinions on the flower that represents Scotland as there are thistles varieties.
In his reflective epic poem, A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, Hugh MacDiarmid’s Scotland is the thistle whichever one he had in mind – ‘The thistle’s like mysel’ and so the object of his musings on the state of Scotland:-
The thistle rises and forever will,
Getherin’ the generations under’t.
This is the monument o’ a’ they were,
And a’ they hoped and wondered.
Thistles grow thick and fast in this country and despite their designation as weeds they have traditionally proved useful as fodder for animals when chopped up although they are not grazed by them which is just as well or I might never have got to see those white ones in Mr Angus’ cattle park. Bees and insects love them for their nectar; Mr Angus has noticed that in mixed clumps of purple and white thistles bees are especially attracted to the white ones. Once flowering is past and seeds have set on those silky filaments green and gold finches move in to devour the tiny seeds. And we should not forget that the thistle has been used in herbal medicine, possibly for as long as plants and people have lived side-by-side.
Pliny recommended thistles as a remedy for baldness and bad breath and as an effective carminative but he mentioned only purple ones so we may infer from this that whites were as rare as hen’s teeth in 1st century Rome as they are in 21st century Scotland. Culpeper in his Complete Herbal however does mention white thistles – but cotton ones which as we know do produce white heads more readily.
Go into any pharmacy or health store and you will find milk thistle, silybum marianum, extract offered as an effective remedy for constipation and for strengthening the liver. Its use was banned by the Olympic committee – for athletes and not spectators I am assuming. Thistle is an ingredient in several contemporary medicines. It is said to be an antidote to Deathcap and Fly Agaric fungi poisoning. Thistle down was once used by the poor to stuff pillows which suggest there used to be many more thistles around in medieval Scotland than there are now.
Time to consult the experts. Dr Heather McHaffie of the Scottish Botanic Garden in Edinburgh has never come across a white spear thistle but compares incidences of whites to an albino ‘without the pink eyes!’ Such a shame. White spear thistles are rare and very attractive but just imagine them with pink eyes. They’d be queuing up at Mr Angus’ gate.
Professor Ian Alexander of Aberdeen University has seen whites in both Cirsium vulgare and the more common Cirsium arvense, the creeping thistle. This latter thistle, as its name suggests, spreads vegetatively by rhizomes and that is perhaps why white flowers are so much more common among them. He explained that where a white plant sets seed – the result of cross-pollination from different flowers – then more white thistles could populate the area. This would fit in with Mr Angus’ experience of the thistles growing in the same spot, although not necessarily producing white flowers every year. Mr Angus suspected the white form originated from a garden variety stocked in a former near-by nursery but as Professor Alexander said, cross pollination will produce the white form from time to time – Dr McHaffie’s albinos minus pink eyes.
While we might venerate the thistle on the one hand its incidence as a weed condemns it on the other. Saskatchewan in Canada is atypical in that there the plant is encouraged for its medicinal properties and value as animal food but the bonnie Cirsium vulgare is included in the Global Invasive Species Database making it a persecuted plant. However I would imagine that there are people who would love to provide a corner of their garden for that rare beauty the white spear thistle.
Lorna Dey (first published Leopard Magazine November/December 2013)