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.
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.
Plants For A Future,
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
The Really WILD Food Guide, www.countrylovers.co.uk/wildfoodjj/index.htm