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10 Neat Things About Thistles
by Shauna Dobbie
by Dorothy Dobbie

The Local Gardener magazines, Ontario Gardener, Manitoba Gardener and Alberta Gardener, are published by Pegasus Publications Inc.

Drawing on her 30 years' experience as a senior executive in the magazine publishing industry, Dorothy launched Manitoba Gardener in 1998, initially running the business out of her home. Two years later, Dorothy's daughter Shauna, living in Ontario, jumped into the fray with Ontario Gardener. And two years after that, they started Alberta Gardener. Visit us at and register for our "Ten Neat things" newsletter. Watch Shaw TV for garden tips and Listen to CJOB for the Gardener Sundays at 9:08

July 11, 2010

  1. True thistles. Strictly speaking, thistle is the common name for plants in the taxonomic tribe Cynareae. The concept of a "true" something or other has always bothered me a little. The names being referred to as "true" or "false" almost always pre-date the naming system that designated which items were true examples and which false. Does that mean that before the naming system people called the wrong things thistles? Of course not! It hardly seems sporting to change the meaning of a word once it's in common usage. Nonetheless, I make note of the trueness of the plants under discussion. I don't want to look like I don't know, after all.
  2. Sow thistles (Sonchus). These are the weeds that look like tiny dandelions on long stems. I always thought the name referred to their penchant for self-sowing; in fact, I was pronouncing it wrong. The name refers to mother pigs because, in the past, these milky weeds were fed to sows in the belief that they would increase milk production, which would grow bigger piglets. They aren't a true thistle.
  3. Scots thistles. Legend has it that, in the 13th century, Norse invaders getting into position for a sneak attack on a Scots encampment gave away their position when one of their number stepped on a thistle and cried out. The Scots won the day and the thistle became a persisting emblem of Scotland. Today the thistle in question is usually identified as Onopordum acanthium; that species is native to the Mediterranean, though, and was not likely in Scotland in the 13th century. The more likely original Scots thistle is Cirsium vulgare. Both are true thistles.
  4. Chardonnay thistles. Another species of true thistle is Carduus, which is, in fact, Latin for thistle. A town in France was once named Cardonnacum, or "place of thistles", which eventually morphed into Chardonnay, the town the wine is named after.
  5. Milk thistle. Silybum marinarum is one of those common plants that may prove to be a lifesaver. It seems to be useful in treating and preventing liver damage. It may also help to reduce cholesterol and insulin resistance, ease symptoms from opiate withdrawal and hangovers, and inhibit growth of certain types of cancer cells. It is a very virtuous plant, but it is not a true thistle.
  6. Artichoke. Artichokes are from the genus Cynara, one of the true thistle genera. If left unharvested, the choke will bloom with a big purple, thistly flower.
  7. Globe thistle. Echinops, generally regarded as a weed but now enjoying cultivated status in many gardens, is not a true thistle.
  8. Butterfly thistles. Several species of true thistle attract various species of fritillary butterflies.
  9. Canada thistles. A true thistle but not truly Canadian. One of the most invasive plants, Cirsium arvense is sometimes considered noxious even where it grows native. It spreads by an underground root system and has colonised much of North America since being introduced from Europe. It is, however, an important food source for goldfinches.
  10. Thistle riddle. What one word can precede thistle, flower, amaranth, artichoke and theatre? The answer is at the end of the photo identifications.

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