What Are Thistle Plants?
Thistle plants are best known for their sharp spikes and vibrant, purple flowers. They may all look very similar, but it is estimated that there are around 200 different species of thistle from all around the world.
Thistles are sometimes considered a weed because of how easily they spread, due to a large quantity of seeds on the flower, and also because they can grow in any type of temperament.
They especially love disturbed ground, such as roadsides and waste grounds.
Thistles adapted to grow their prickles to prevent them from being eaten by small animals. However, they do still provide sustenance for many types of wildlife, particularly bees, as the flowers have plenty of nectar.
Birds also feed on a thistle’s seeds, and the cotton-like substance on some species of thistle provides lining for bird nests.
If you want to learn about how much the different types of thistle vary, and what thistles can be used for, read on!
Creeping Thistle (Cirsium Arvense)
Native To: Southeastern Europe And Eastern Mediterranean Area
The creeping thistle lives up to its name – it is the most common thistle plant to find in the United Kingdom, and is it quickly making its way around the world. It likes to grow in ground that has been cultivated or disturbed.
This includes waste grounds, field edges, grasslands, and verges; anything that has been turned over recently. It provides a brilliant food source for many birds (both farmland and garden birds), as they often feast on its seeds. Because this thistle is everywhere, these birds will rarely go hungry!
Woolly Thistle (Cirsium Eriophorum)
Native To: Southern England
Classed as a common thistle, this plant loves areas that are prone to chalk and limestone in the ground. This means that it is most often found in areas of Southern England, which has a large quantity of chalk.
It also thrives in areas of grassland and disturbed ground, like old quarries. You are most likely to find it between July and September, as that its when its woolly flower heads bloom.
They are distinguished by their reddish-purple florets nestled in wool-covered spiny leaves.
Musk Thistle (Carduus Nutans)
Native To: England, Wales, And North America
Also known as the Nodding thistle, the Must thistle is a mass seed producer, with each plant able to create between 10,000 and 120,000 seeds! This particular plant can grow between two to six feet tall (or even taller), making it one of the largest thistle plants out there.
It has different stages to the way it flowers, often producing rosettes in its first year of growth, and then flowering stalks as it gets older.
The leaves are dark green and incredibly spiky as a rosette, and then as they grow more, the flowers shoot out from the stalks, which are covered in spiny bracts (leaf-like structures).
As with most thistles, the Musk thistle thrives in the disturbed ground such as roadsides, and it has a habit of taking over undisturbed sites and out-competing other plants.
This results in a loss of biodiversity in certain areas, sealing the Must thistle’s reputation as a weed.
Blue Sow Thistle (Cicerbita Alpina)
Native To: Scotland
This is a particularly rare form of thistle plant and is classed as a protected species. It loves moist soil, and it doesn’t like too much sunlight either.
Those that live in the Highlands recommend encouraging this plant to grow by cultivating it in multiple areas, helping to conserve the species.
The reason it is dying out is that it was a favorite form of grazing food for sheep, cattle, and deer. It couldn’t grow back fast enough, so now it is dangerously close to extinction.
It is a beautiful form of thistle, with blue-purple flowering heads that resemble dandelion flowers!
Native To: All Over The World (Apart From The Southern US)!
The burdock plant is a part of the Daisy family, Sunflower family, and the Thistle group. It has been used as a ingredient in both medicine and food for hundreds of years – one of its main uses in history was to purify blood and treat skin conditions.
While burdock likes disturbed soil ground, like waste ground and roadsides, it also likes to be near water so is often found next to rivers.
It is considered one of the most invasive types of thistle, but interestingly it is also commercially grown in Japan for food (you can eat the roots for healthcare and cooking).
Burdock’s resemblance to thistles is most apparent when it flowers. Its pink petals are tuft-like, growing out of a sphere of spiky bracts.
Medicinally, it is thought to have antibacterial properties, help with a fever, reduce inflammation and gastrointestinal problems, and soothe sore throats and coughs!
Milk Thistle (Silybum Marianum)
Native To: Mediterranean
Also known as Blessed Mary’s Thistle, Milk Thistle is a plant that loves the sun. It also is one of the most commonly used plants in medicine.
Originally from the Mediterranean but is now grown in the UK, this thistle is formed in large, spiky rosettes, that has white veins and purple flower heads.
It is used to reduce indigestion problems and to support the liver by filtering out toxins, as it is a natural detoxifier.
Because the liver also balances out hormones, milk thistle can help to keep hormones in check – particularly oestrogen.
Marsh Thistle (Cirsium Palustre)
Native To: Europe
As the name suggests, this thistle plant loves damp ground. This means that you will find it near marshes, moorlands, wet fields and rivers.
It is great to have in gardens, because it produces quite a lot of nectar, which helps the bee population survive! If you want to go in search of this thistle, keep an eye out for tall stalks (it is Britain’s tallest thistle) covered in small spines.
The flowers are most often purple, but depending on the mutations, they may sometimes be white. It will flower between July and September, similar to most other thistle plants.
Melancholy Thistle (Cirsium Heterophyllum)
Native To: Europe And Western Asia
Like some of the other thistles, the Melancholy Thistle likes to be near water, but it also thrives in woodland and hay meadows (one of the only thistle plants to like this temperament).
Another difference between the Melancholy Thistle and other thistles is that this plant doesn’t have prickles! Instead, it only has the purple flowers that are very common to thistles, and leaves with a thick coat of white felt on their underside.
This plant can now mainly be found in the northern areas of the UK (Scotland, North Wales and Northern England).
This thistle gets its name from a property people believed the plant to have – a cure to melancholy (depression). This has never been proven, however.
Scottish Thistle (Onopordum Acanthium)
Native To: Europe (Not Scotland!)
The Scottish Thistle was made the national emblem of Scotland in 1470, when it was used on silver coins as currency. However, the Scottish Thistle isn’t actually native to Scotland – it arrived from other parts of Europe.
The reason it is the national emblem for Scotland is because of its supposed role in the Battle of Largs.
The story begins in 1263. Scotland’s king at the time, King Alexander III, wanted to reclaim the country from the hold that Norway had of it. However, Norway’s king wasn’t happy about this.
To try and reestablish his power over Scotland, the Norse king staged an invasion. He sent some of his Norsemen to Scottish territory, to try and surprise attack the clan that lived there.
Supposedly, these Norsemen took off their shoes as they made their way to the Scottish Clansmen so they wouldn’t make much noise. However, the area was surrounded by none other than the Scottish Thistle.
The Norsemen weren’t expecting the thistles, and one of them cried out in pain as he was stabbed in the foot by spikes.
This alerted the Scottish Clansmen to the invading enemy, saving their lives. It is not known if this story is actually true, but the thistle still resembles Scottish independence.
It looks like all of the other thistle plants – it has a thorn-covered stalk and a purple flower protruding from a spiky bract. Its history, however, is like no other plant.
Spear Thistle (Cirsium Vulgare)
Native To: Most Of Europe, Western Asia And Northwestern Africa
Also known as the Common Thistle, the Spear Thistle can be spotted between July and October. This thistle grows almost everywhere. It loves cultivated ground, particularly on roadsides, field edges and pastures.
While it is considered a weed (and a nuisance), its seeds are brilliant for any local wildlife.
It can also be used in cooking, and the plant’s dried flowers are sometimes used to help make cheese when there is no rennet (a set of enzymes used to separate milk into solid curds) available! You can identify it by looking out for bright pink flowers on top of spiny bracts and tall, spiny stems.