You have to walk through a lot of farmer’s fields today before you find a good patch of thistles.
This strange thought occurred to me the other day after several strolls in the countryside around my house. For a plant that the books claim is extremely common I found it very hard to locate. At least the ones in my garden are doing well and despite having a formidable defence thistles have a soft centre and as I write this white fluffy down is floating across the lawn. Thistles are a good indicator of dry settled weather. The plant can sense moisture in the air and waits for a sunny day with a gentle breeze to release its seeds. This ensures that they are dispersed far and wide and if you closely examine this down you will see that each seed hangs at the end of a delicate parachute.
Thistles don’t have a good reputation but this is based on a lack of understanding of the benefits it provides for nature. This is a very attractive plant for wildlife and one of the best to have in your wild garden. The flowers attract Bumblebees, Butterflies and many species of insects. Also when the fruit ripen large flocks of Goldfinches and Greenfinches roam the countryside feasting musically on the seeds. Where have all the small birds gone was a typical comment up to a few years ago until they started to make a return to our gardens. I think this has happened for two reasons. Firstly we are now encouraging wildlife into our gardens by providing food and shelter and using fewer chemicals. Also many small birds have learned how to feed from nut/seed feeders and this brings them into closer contact with us. Thistles can also be cut and hung (with a certain amount of satisfaction) on the fence for the birds to eat, but don’t place them near your neighbours unless they are converted to the merits of the plant.
There are several species of thistle found in Ireland including Marsh, Spear, Creeping and the Carline thistle. The last one is quite rare as it likes dry open habitats and I have only found it in disused quarries. Flowering period is mainly between July and September and I always know that the Summer holidays are coming to an end when the thistles start to complete their lifecycles. Having spines is a good natural defense against grazing animals and only the harsh tongue of the Donkey is capable of eating it. Surprisingly Thistles were often welcomed as a good omen on land by perspective buyers. Recently I read a story about a blind man went with his son to buy some land. When they got there he told his son to ‘tie a thistle to the tail of his Donkey”. When his son replied “that he couldn’t find any’ the old man said ‘that land that cannot support even thistles is no good” and they returned home.
Thistles were know as “Jinnyjoes” in some parts of the country (ring a bell with anyone?) and children used to play a game with them. They tried the catch the seeds as they were blown by the wind uttering “Jinny go up, Jinny go up’. If they got one and it had a seed attached they placed it in a matchbox. Thistles appear in some place names. For example in Donegal Fafranragh Bhan is translated as “white land thistle’. This shows how common they must once have been and the decline they have suffered in the harsh agricultural landscape.
Thistles once they were relegated from the fields took to the roadside verges. As I drive along the quite country roads the wildflowers brush gently against the car and hundreds of seeds fall onto the road. Flocks of mixed finches arrive and feed on the seeds of the wildflowers that have gathered along the edge of the road. This is a seasonal bounty and helps the birds prepare for the long lean Winter. Perhaps here in our gardens and along the bottom of hedgerows the redeeming qualities of thistles will offer it a degree of protection from the all too pervasive cutters and sprayers.