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Think of a thistle and you think of the national flower of Scotland (well besides the White Rose of Scotland). There are in fact several species of thistle in Britain and most of these can be found in Scotland.

As the Wildlife insight website points out, All thistles belong to the daisy family (asteraceae), the largest family of flowering plants in the UK after grasses. The flower heads are made up of a number of individual flowers or florets giving rise to this family being called “composites”.

As you know, the thistle is the national flower of Scotland. Quite why is a matter of conjecture, but there are some traditional explanations.

One story is that when the Vikings attacked Largs in the 13th century, they planned on quietness and stealth under cover of darkness and so removed their shoes. As they approached some stood on the spikes of the thistle and screamed. We can only imagine their cries in Norse profanities. The locals were roused in time and defeated their foes.

A good story.

The thistle has been used as an emblem for hundreds of years. For instance it appeared on silver coins in Scotland as early as 1474, issued by King James III in Scotland. 

The NTS website tells us : In 1687 King James VII and II founded the Order of the Thistle. Its heraldic emblem was, of course, the thistle. Its full title is the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, and it is an order of chivalry, the highest honour Scotland can bestow on an individual. The motto of the Order, Nemo me impune lacessit, ‘No one provokes me with impunity’, pairs well with the prickly thistle which cannot be picked without difficulty.

Some of the thistles found in West Dunbartonshire are described below in alphabetical order. The iconic species used as the symbol of Scotland is usually the spear thistle, but as you can see below, may also be the cotton thistle, both of which claim to be the Scottish Thistle.

CREEPING THISTLE : Cirsium arvense

This is our most common species of thistle and can be found on disturbed and cultivated ground, such here near India Street where an area has been cleared of larger vegetation. It is most apparent from June to October. Its creeping roots enable it to quickly spread across an area, forming large colonies. As with other thistles, it can become a nuisance on agricultural land and these species are often considered to be weeds. Despite this status, its seeds are an important food source for a variety of farmland birds.

Through June many thistles have appeared. Most have quickly displayed their colours, but this large stand of thistles on the land below India Street and along the Leven towpath waited a while and then gave us an interesting display of prickles guarding elongated mauve flower heads.

By mid-July the heads have all gone hairy and rains have made them look like fluffy teddy bears just out of the washing machine.

MARSH OR SWAMP THISTLE : Cirsium palustre

When mature this is a tall thistle which reaches up to 2 metres (7 ft) in height. The strong stems have few branches and are covered in small spines. It is often overlloked as in its first year the plant grows as a dense prickly rosette alsmost flat on the ground. In the subsequent years the plant grows a tall, straight stem, the tip of which branches repeatedly, bearing a candelabra of dark purple flowers. The example in the photo below was taken on the towpath of the River Leven. Perhaps we don't see more mature plants due to seasonal mowing and then autumnal dying back.

Quite a random profusion of flower heads.

The flowers range from quite purple to pale and almost mauve.

SCOTTISH THISTLE : Onopordum acanthium

Also known as the Scotch thistle or cotton thistle.

This is found across Europe and western Asia and introduced populations in the USA and Australia where it has become a nuisance. It is very similar to the spear thistle decribed below. Both are known as the Scottish thistle.

With a warning of the language. As noted above, this thistle is found across Europe. The botanical name of Onopordum acanthium signifies the genus and is derived from the Ancient Greek words όνος (ónos=donkey), πέρδω (pérdo=to fart), and άκανθος (ácanthos=thorn), in other words, it means 'donkey fart thorny food'.


SPEAR THISTLE : Cirsium vulgare.

Also known as bull thistle or common thistle.

"Cirsium" refers to its genus. That awful sounding appelation of "vulgare" simply means "common".

In spite of being a "common" thistle species, it is not often the first one you come across in West Dunbartonshire. It is actually native throughout most of Europe , Western Asia and northwestern Africa. And it is also naturalised in North America, Africa, and Australia. Many countries consider it an invasive weed - including parts of the UK. 

But on the plus side - As Wiki says, it provides a great deal of nectar for pollinators. It was rated in the top 10 for most nectar production (nectar per unit cover per year) in a UK plants survey conducted by the AgriLand project which is supported by the UK Insect Pollinators Initiative. 

An early spear thistle flower has flopped to one side, perhaps bumped as it is right on the towpath, but it gives us an opportunity to look at its structure. Its elongated leaves are spear shaped and spikey along their edges. (The other visible leaves are from a different plant).

From a row of low ankle-scrqtchers ...

....to formidable balls of spikes....

... to iconic Scottish thistles.

So disciplined, defensive and well arranged until now, but late July these begin to pop their fluffy seed heads.

By the time you notice this thistle it will have developed into the imposing prickly plant you see in the previous pics, but in its intitial stages of growth it looks rather different. Here it is still a low ground hugging prickly rosette. It is also a little furry, making it look like it is covered in spider web.

Wiki tells us : It is a tall biennial or short-lived monocarpic thistle, forming a rosette of leaves and a taproot up to 70 cm long in the first year, and a flowering stem 1–1.5 m tall in the second (rarely third or fourth) year. It can grow up to 1.8 metres (5 ft 11 in) tall.[11] It sometimes will function as an annual, flowering in the first year.

NATIONAL TRUST FOR SCOTLAND / NTS : https://www.nts.org.uk/stories/the-thistle-scotlands-national-flower

SCOTLAND SPECIES : https://scotland-species.nbnatlas.org/species/NBNSYS0000004491

WIKIPEDIA : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cirsium_palustre and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cirsium_vulgare

WILDLIFE INSIGHT : http://www.wildlifeinsight.com/common-british-thistles/

WILDLIFE TRUSTS : https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife-explorer/wildflowers/spear-thistle and https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife-explorer/wildflowers/creeping-thistle

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