9 July 2010
I am a big thistle fan. I like their big fat rosettes of spiny leaves in winter. I like their unapologetically pushy growth in spring. I like their open angular structure and their un-pickability, but most of all I like their shaving brush flowers in violet and mauve. I am told all too often by visitors that they are 'weeds, weeds, weeds', but this falls on deaf ears, generally they are not too weedy for our purpose (though one is) and the benefits outweigh any difficulties.
The garden is home to three species of thistle, two biennials and one rampaging perennial. All are good plants for wildlife and the flowers in mid to late summer are a treat for bees and butterflies.
The Musk Thistle, Carduus nutans, is a spiny whopper growing from a big over-wintering rosette to 1/1.5m. The candelabra of branches needs no staking and each branch ends in a single fat 'artichoke' bud armed with ferocious spines. The buds open into great big violet brushes - perfect bee-beds for bumblebees to nestle in.
Spear Thistle, Cirsium vulgare, is less statuesque and only grows to 1m here. It has finer spines and narrower leaves, this gives a lighter feel to the plant. The round, densely spined buds open into pale violet pompoms over a long season.
Both of these produce lots of seeds that spread on thistle-down parachutes. This could be a problem in some gardens. I find that here, with seed hungry birds and an army of molluscs munching away seedlings and with lots of competition for space in the beds they only manage to reproduce themselves enough to please me. They are easily removed if needs be.
The Creeping Thistle, Cirsium arvense, is the bad penny in the bunch. It is fiercely invasive, spreading far and wide underground - the roots can go down metres and spread yards in a single season - and it seeds like crazy. Unbranched relatively spineless metre high stems are topped with clusters of small undistinguished mauve flowers - bees love them none the less for this - but the stems have weak ankles and they often fall over before flowering. In spite of the potential for it to take over it is a foodplant for a number of species - fat-legged beetles develop inside its stems - so it just earns a place. I try to nip off the flowers before seed is shed to prevent it's spread and the colony is restricted to the wildlife area and walnut mound by the regular mowing of the grass around it.
I am a thistle fan.
I like their spiny violet ways and the summer squeals from bin-users caught an unwary jab in the back of the hand. Can you see licky bees in powder puff happiness and tell me you're not a fissle fan too?