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Thistle

In the year of our Lord twelve hundred and sixty three there was to be a reckoning between the faithful Scots and the Norse pagans the likes of which neither side had known, nor would ever know again. For too long the territory of the Vikings stretched west from Norway to Greenland and south to the Isle of Man. But reaching the age of his Majority, Alexander III, King of Scots declared his intent to rid his realm of Norsemen.

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To goad King Haakon of the Norseman into rash and retaliatory action, Alexander ordered raids on the Isle of Skye, Scotland’s northernmost island and an important stronghold for the Vikings. Swallowing the bait hook, line, and sinker, King Haakon quickly raised a leidang-fleet of 120 sails and 20,000 men (or so legend would have it) and disembarked for this rebellious vassal early in the fall of 1263. But, nearing the shore of Scotland, a gale struck that sent the Viking fleet struggling to find land for 5 days.

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When they did it was with severely diminished forces. What remained of their troops were beleaguered from rowing for their lives and the Vikings needed the element of surprise if they were to have a chance at defeating the Scottish army that now outnumbered them ten to one. The planned to sneak up on the Scottish forces at night and left their shoes behind in an attempt completely mute their approach.

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But providence and local flora intervened when a shoeless  Viking stepped on the thorny spikes of a Thistle and cried out in pain, alerting the Scots to the oncoming onslaught. Carnage ensued and the Vikings were forced back to their boats and Norway. Soon thereafter they issued entreaties for peace and with this the Norse were once and for all banished from the Isle of Man.

Recognizing its contribution to their victory, Alexander III adopted the Thistle as the Emblem of Scotland and thenceforth, this simple purple flower became known as the Guardian Thistle. It should be noted that there are many different types of Thistle (Asteracea) –  milk, spear, bull, sow, and globe to name a few –  and no one knows which kind stabbed through the undoubtedly hardened sole of a Viking’s foot. But all Thistles have in common sharp thorns growing from top to bottom that protect them from being eaten by herbivores as well as spherical plume of purple that makes them attractive to pollinators. Likewise, all Thistles are folded into the monicour of Guardian Thistle, and so I also take the family as a City Plant unto its own.  

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By and by, the legend of the Guardian Thistle proliferated, as did its imagery in Scottish culture. In the late 15th Century under James III, it became part of the Royal Plant Badge (yes, such a thing exists) as well as a mainstay on silver coins. The Order of the Thistle was also founded under James III , which is to this day the greatest order of chivalry in Scotland. It’s motto, “Nemo me impune lacessit” in Latin, “Cha togar m’ fhearg gun dìoladh” in Galic, “No one harms me with impunity” in English, and “You fuck with me, and I’ll fuck with you” in modern Scottish,  harkens back to the Battle of Largs as well as the inherently defensive nature of the Thistle that will deliver a palm full of thorns to anyone foolish enough to pick it.

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While the Scots had the greatest reason to value the Thistle, much of Europe, to which this plant originally belongs, had cause to appreciate it as well. The Virgin Mary was long associated with the species from the Song of Songs passage, “As the lily among thorns, is so my love among the daughters.” The lily was often read as Mary and the thorns as thistles. How one plant but not the other was anthropomorphized is beyond me, but I am not monk in the 14th Century. And it was, as it turns out, in 1370 that Louis II, Duke of Bourbon founded Order of our Lady of the Thistle in celebration of the marriage of his daughter. Not to be confused with the Scot’s predictably belligerent motto, the French prefered a softer touch and the knights inducted into the order wore belts embossed with the word, esperance, or hope.

The Thistle was lauded as well for its medicinal uses throughout Western history. Pliny the Elder suggested drinking a tea of wild thistle root would help engender a male child  in a woman’s womb. Shakespeare, himself a great lover of City Plants, repeated this notion in Much Ado About Nothing.

Thistle is a manner herb or a weed with pricks, the kind thereof is biting and cruel, therefore the juice thereof cureth the falling of hair. The root thereof sod in water giveth appetite to drinkers, and it is no wonder though women desire it, for it helpeth the conception of male children.

I’m more curious about the drinkers’ appetite part, but that’s just me.

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In the early 11th Century the incomprehensibly amazing Hildegard of Bingen, aka Saint Hildegard, aka Sibyl of the Rhine, aka founder of scientific natural history in Germany stated:

If a man eats or drinks poison, let him pulverize the head of the thistle and the root and the leaves and let him take the powder in food or drink, and the poison will be driven from him.

A millennia later, modern science discovered the thistle does indeed have the capacity to rid the liver of toxins, most notably those found in death cap mushrooms, the species responsible for 90 percent of all mushroom deaths. Since incorporating purified silibinin extract from milk thistle delivered as an intravenous drip into the treatment of such cases in the 1970s, death cap fatalities in Europe have been reduced by 80 percent.  

The Grand Herbier, a text published early in the 16th Century suggests mothers should cook the leaves of Thistle to increase their milk while the ever illustrious 17th Century apothecarian  Nicholas Culpepper claimed that drinking Thistle in wine would cure depression. On that account I’m sure he’s right.

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Speaking of wine, we will return once more to Scotland to finish our tour of the Thistle. In 1926 poet, modernist, and journalist Hugh MacDiarmid published his epic poem, A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle. In 2,685 lines of stream of consciousness, our protagonist swings between the lyrical and the invective with baughts of flyting in between musing on politics, religion, classism, culture, and the nature of time all while contemplating the county’s fair and prickly flower. 

Should you be a bit tipsy and poetically inclined, you can find Thistles in the unkempt backlots of southern Brooklyn, Long Island City constructions sites, and lower Manhattan avenue medians.  

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