Spear Thistle & Teasel

BF 30 Spear Thistle and Teasel.jpg
BF 30 Spear Thistle and Teasel.jpg

Spear Thistle & Teasel




Thistle is the common name of a group of flowering plants characterised by leaves with sharp prickles on the margins, mostly in the family Asteraceae. Prickles occur all over the plant – on the stem and flat parts of leaves. They are an adaptation that protects the plant from being eaten by herbivores. Typically, an involucre with a clasping shape of a cup or urn subtends each of a thistle's flowerheads. Our native flora include many species of Thistle, some which are common and persistent weeds. Here is the Spear Thistle. The name Thistle, or Anglo-Saxon thistel, comes from the word thydan, to stab, and the generic name Cirsium is a plant name used by Dioscorides (1) medicinally for enlargement of the veins. The specific name lanceolatus previously given to this species (now more humbly called vulgare) means 'having a spiked end'. The species is well armed against herbivores so is rarely touched by sheep or cattle to produce masses of drifting Thistle-down. Each flowerhead produces about 100 parachute fruits, and a single plant averages nearly 4,000. The Spear Thistle is commonly found in fields, waysides, waste places and gardens all over the British Isles and it has been introduced to North America. It is probably the Thistle adopted by the Scots as their national emblem (although their preference is the cotton thistle (Onopordum acanthium) which probably did not exist in Scotland in mediaeval times). 

Dipsacus is a genus of flowering plant in the family Caprifoliaceae. The members of this genus are known as teasel, teazel or teazle. The genus comprises about 15 species of tall herbaceous biennial plants native to Europe, Asia and northern Africa.  Found in copses, banks of streams and roadsides, it is common in the south and east extending as far north as Perth. Fuller's Teasel (fullonum) has hooked bracts on the flower heads whilst the Wild Teasel, (sylvestris) has straight ones. The former is an introduction (possibly in the time of Edward III) and was still grown as a crop in Somerset for cleaning, aligning and raising the nap on textiles until recently. This use in 'teasing' cloth, comes from Anglo-Saxon tӕsan. Local names include Barber's Brushes, Clothes Brush, and Lady's Brushes. The generic name Dipsacus means a type of dropsy, the bases of the opposite leaves are fused to form a cup which collects water. Blunt (2) mentions its use in the treatment of dropsy, poisoning and liver complaints. He also reproduced woodcuts from a Latin herbarius of 1484 (from a German one of 1485) of Fuchs' (3) and Brunfels (4). He said Fuchs' illustration is vigorous, but Brunfels' modest plant with shrivelled leaves shows more subtle observation. Arber (5) also reproduces Fuchs' woodcut.

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(1) Pedanius Dioscorides (c. 40–90 AD) Greek physician, pharmacologist, botanist, De Materia Medica;

(2) Blunt, Wilfred (1901-1987) teacher, artist, author, The Art of Botanical Illustration. London, 1950;

(3) Fuchs, Leonhart (1501–1566) German physician and botanist, De Historia Stirpium Commentarii Insignes (Notable commentaries on the history of plants), Basel, 1542;

(4) Brunfels, Otto (1488-1534) German theologian and botanist, Herbarium Vivae Eicones, 1530;

(5) Arber, Agnes (1879-1960) plant morphologist and anatomist, botanic historian and biology philosopher, Herbals: their origin and evolution. A chapter in the history of botany, 1938;