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David Watson Hood, visual artist.
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Thistle: Cirsium vulgare (Savi). synonym Carduus lanceolatus L. Spear Thistle, Common Thistle, Bur thistle, Cluaran Deilgneach, Cluran deilgneach, Thrissle.


thistleThis is not the Scottish thistle of current heraldry, that is Onopordon acanthium L. a doubtful native of the UK which does not grow wild in Scotland. This fact strikes me as strangely appropriate, for the extremes of Caledonian cultural identification also seem to be an exotic growth that will only survive here with cultivation.

Thirty and some years since, the man handed me a scythe, its snaithe was branded with the words "supplied by the country gentlemen's association" I felt that not stated but implied was "indigent peasant for the use of", it also seemed to be made out of matchwood. I was instructed to cut all the thistles on 200 acres of permanent pasture too steep to cultivate. I began under a blazing summer sun the Zen like meditation, or mind numbing Sisyphean task of step and cut, step and cut, day following day, with breaks to replace the sub-standard snaithe three times, some days it seems like I am still doing it.

On the same farm in the drought of 1976 when there was not a blade of grass left, I watched horses repeatedly rearing up and crashing down on something. I went to investigate and saw they were pounding thistles to a pulp with their hooves, they had of course re-grown, and after they had thoroughly squashed them they ate them.

The thistle's first use as a royal symbol seems to be by James III in about 1470. There are several different stories of how the thistle became Scotland's symbol, but most point to the events surrounding the Battle of Largs in 1263. King Alexander III proposed to buy back the Western Isles and Kintyre from Norway. This re-awoke Norse territorial interest and King Haakon IV attacked with a large force, but was finally defeated at Largs. According to legend at some point during the campaign the Norsemen tried to surprise the Scots with a night attack. They removed their footwear for a silent approach but found themselves on ground covered with thistles. It is said their involuntary shouts warned the Scots who then saw off the Norsemen, thus saving Scotland. The role of the thistle being understood, it was chosen as Scotland's symbol, with the motto "Nemo me impune lacessit", "None Touch Me with Impunity," but more commonly translated as "Wha daurs meddle wi me". It seems un-feasible that there were Cotton Thistles (Onopordon acanthium L.), anywhere in the vicinity at that time. I suspect Walter Scott or another such 'Balmoralist' wanted to make the emblem the 'bigist' 'bestist' 'spikiest' thistle they could find. In my childhood the 'battle of Largs' used to be about how long one had to plouter about in a force eight looking at thistles before being allowed to decamp to Nardini's for an ice-cream.

Non-medical uses of thistle
As a wild food plant thistles have one great advantage, (to quote Ivor Cutler,) "there are a lot of thistles in Scotland"; they also have the obvious disadvantage that the cook must wear leather gloves and spend a considerable time with a very sharp knife removing prickles. Leaf mid ribs are a good source of greens when living wild. Leaves, stems, roots, buds and seed all have culinary use; the cooked root is said to have a taste somewhat like a Jerusalem artichoke, but not as nice. A rather bland flavour, the root is best used mixed with other vegetables. The root can be dried and stored for later use. The root is rich in inulin, a starch that cannot be digested by humans. This starch thus passes straight through the digestive system and, in some people, ferments to produce flatulence. Young flower stems - cooked and used as a vegetable. Young leaves can be soaked overnight in salt water and then cooked and eaten. Flower buds – cooked; used like globe artichokes, but smaller and even fiddlier. The dried flowers are a rennet substitute for curdling plant milks. Seed - occasionally eaten roasted.

A fibre obtained from the inner bark is used in making paper. The fibre is about 0.9mm long. The stems are harvested in late summer, the leaves removed and the stems steamed until the fibres can be stripped off. The fibres are cooked with lye for two hours and then put in a ball mill for 3 hours. The resulting paper is a light brown tan. The seed of all species of thistles yields a good oil by expression. No details of potential yields etc are given. The down makes excellent tinder that is easily lit by a spark from a flint .

Medicinal uses of thistle
Antihaemorrhoidal, Antirheumatic, Poultice.
Definitons of medical actions
The roots have been used as a poultice and a decoction of the plant used as a poultice on sore jaws. A hot infusion of the whole plant has been used as a herbal steam for treating rheumatic joints. A decoction of the whole plant has been used both internally and externally to treat bleeding piles.

Sources:
Plants For A Future, www.pfaf.org/index.html,
Flora Celtica, www.floraceltica.com/, Flora Celtica is an international project based at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, documenting and promoting the knowledge and sustainable use of native plants in the Celtic countries and regions of Europe.
The Really WILD Food Guide, www.countrylovers.co.uk/wildfoodjj/index.htm

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