July is the month when suddenly, thistles are higher than your head and they rip holes in your arm when you try to pass. There are plenty of thistle varieties but I am talking about the Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense) which also has other descriptive names such as “stinger needles”, “cursed thistle”, “creeping thistle” and “lettuce from hell”. To call it the Canada thistle is a misnomer and a slight on Canada’s reputation. Like the dandelion and so many of our other weeds, the “lettuce from hell”, is an import from Europe which took hold, probably with the first sack of grain off the first sailing ship, and won’t let go.
Centuries of hostility have helped the thistle to evolve into an almost invincible warrior. It is perennial so it never dies. It blooms and produces seeds nonstop from June until the frost kills it. When cut down, it blithely springs up again twice as vigorous. Its fluffy seeds float lightly through the air to start new colonies long distances away. Roots snake out twenty feet, sprouting little new plants all along the way. And don’t even think that digging the thistle out of the ground will stop it. Each tiny, broken fragment of root left behind will regenerate into a new plant to more than replace the uprooted parent.
No animal will eat the thistle for it is covered with razor sharp spines on stem and leaves. Spines penetrate clothes and even shoes to plunge sharp needles into flesh, maddeningly painful until you find and extract them one by one.
So how’s a besieged soul to prevent the monsters from taking over the land? You used to be able to spray them with handy dandy herbicides from the hardware store but bans, something about cleaning drinking water, now prohibit that. You get a big fat fine if you’re not spaying poison ivy or other plant that is actually poisonous. There are nifty agricultural sprays but suppliers won’t sell them to civilians, only certified pesticide handlers. The organic folk say to spray them with a planet-loving mix of vinegar, salt and dish soap which will kill in twenty-four hours.
Ha! Vinegar makes thistles laugh and get even greener.
Thistles do have one fan, the goldfinch. These little yellow birds love to devour thistle seeds and even put off their nesting until they can line their nests with thistledown. Cleverly, they create a soft home from the thorniest of farmland bullies.
And the thistle managed to make itself the national emblem of Scotland because it once saved the land from Norwegian invaders. Legend has it that a Norse army, creeping in the surprise the Scots, stepped on thistles and yelped in pain. The sleeping Scots awoke and promptly defeated the attackers, saving the day. In 1687, King James III instituted the Most Noble and Most Ancient Order of the Thistle to honour outstanding contributors to the nation.
Perhaps there should also be an award for outstanding invader. The thistle would win, spines down.