Grits and Purls

Spinning yarns about the grit of life

A long stretch of rainy days has finally washed the dirty snow from the sides of the roads. Robins sing happily from the branches of trees. Male red winged black birds fiercely defend territory and battle for land for their “ladies” who will arrive in a couple of weeks. Cardinals declare “what cheer, spring is here”, and even the killdeer are back, panicking whenever I approach too closely. Indeed, spring does seem to be on its way.

I walked around our soggy, snow-free backyard with my daughter and observed yet another sign of spring, a beautifully greening thistle in the center of a patch of brown grass. I sighed, uncertain of whether I should be happy to see the “green” or irritated that the first thing to go green in my backyard is a thistle.

Thistles are hard to love. They are prickly, and their nettles can be horribly painful and difficult to remove once they have implanted themselves into your skin. But, it would appear that Mother Nature has given me more thistles this spring, and I’m wondering if I should look for the good in these stubborn, prickly, hard-to-even-like-much-less-love flora.

So, I did some investigating beyond the prickles, to see what I could find to appreciate.

It turns out that in Scotland the thistle is highly regarded, so much so it is the national flower of Scotland. The thistle also is a Celtic symbol signifying nobility of character and birth. Given that and the number of thistles that I pull out of my yard each year, surely my home is a gilded palace, and my daughter is indeed a princess (as if there were any doubt about the latter).

Of course the thistles that invade my yard are probably Canada thistles (don’t let the name fool you, they didn’t come from Canada), which are considered a noxious weeds. These thistles have destroyed ranch lands and prairies where they have been allowed to grow unchecked or where land is overgrazed or mismanaged. But they are also a favorite food of the goldfinch, one of my favorite birds, and it is a beautiful sight in the summer to see the yellow and black of the goldfinches among the pink and purple of the thistles. The Canada thistle also attracts butterflies and skippers, so it can bring delight, even with all its prickles.

The taproots of the thistles are edible, but because they contain high amounts of inulin, an indigestible starch, they can induce flatulence. One source I read said that the scientific genus name of the Scottish Thistle Onopordum is formed from Greek ono meaning “donkey” and perdon meaning “passing wind” because donkeys that grazed on thistles from this genus would break wind as they passed by. I’m sorry but how can I look at the thistles in my backyard and fail to smile now that I have read this tale?

Admittedly Wikipedia gave a far less interesting meaning for the genus name, but I’ll choose to ignore that.

In Scotland, the young springtime shoots of thistles are considered a delicacy (right up there with haggis, I suspect). Perhaps the reason that thistles have obtained such respect in Scotland is because of this traditional tale. The story says that some Norwegian Vikings landed on the coast of Largs to attack the Scots. The Vikings pulled off their shoes to sneak quietly across the fields, but the fields were filled with thistles and their cries of pain when they stepped on the thistles alerted the Scots who were able to fend off the attack.

So thistles bring delight to disturbed and mismanaged lands by inviting goldfinches, butterflies and skippers. They are credited with saving the Scots from Viking pillagers. They may well be responsible for flatulent donkeys, a picture that just makes me giggle every time I think of it. So now I can look at that greening thistle in my backyard, smile, and say “Welcome spring!”

Sometimes life hands you prickly thistles, and you have to look hard to find the joy is in them. But sometimes you find things to laugh at and that will bring delight to your eyes, even as you fiercely wield your garden weasel.

© 2010 Michele Arduengo. All Rights Reserved.

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