Thursday, 21 July 2011

The Cotton Thistle...

Sometimes a patch of garden is just crying out for an ‘architectural plant,’ something bold and angular, something that makes a statement and shouts ‘Look at me!’ Standing up to nine feet tall in a single season, the jagged silvery outline of the Cotton Thistle certainly does this and would be an imposing and eye-catching feature in any garden.

Its scientific name is ‘Onopordum acanthium’ which very roughly translated means ‘prickly donkey food.’ I suspect only a starving donkey would be tempted to even go near it though as it is fully and visibly armed with a fearsome array of protective prickles. 




In the garden though, beyond reach of all hungry donkeys, it makes for an imposing and attractive specimen. Shooting quickly up to over head height, the widely branching stems are topped off in typical purplish thistle heads, only these flowers are impressively larger and splendidly spikier. The whole plant can be three feet or more across and from top to bottom a dazzlingly brilliant white, thanks to a thick felty covering of fine silvery grey hairs. 
This is a plant with a split personality, as far as touch is concerned. The fine cotton flocking all over makes for a very soft feel, temptingly touchable in fact. But, catch your hand on one of those leaf edge prickles and you will quickly learn to avoid close encounters in the future. Even the stout stems carry long vertical wings of leafy material lined with these protective thorns. Grazing animals around its Mediterranean home may learn to leave them alone, but bees and butterflies love them and will bring the plants to life on warm and sunny afternoons.
Easy to grow is perhaps an understatement. Once resident in the garden, it is just a question of ignoring a few of the self sown seedling and allowing them to fend for themselves. Either that or transplant a few whilst small, before their taproot fixes them firmly in place. They are best sited where their display will be a welcome bonus rather than a prickly hazard to passers by. These plants are biennials which means they have a two year life cycle... In the first year they produce a relatively inconspicuous looking weedy rosette of silvery foliage. It is then in their second year that they quickly shoot up to spectacular heights as prickly grey giants of the garden...

12 comments:

  1. They do make a statement don't they? Do you find that they ever blow over? Even our teazles which aren't so tall are now at a bit of an angle.

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  2. Yes, Janet- they are apt to lean a little. It's the huge weight of those impressive thistle heads. Tricky to get at with stakes and string!

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  3. Chris, The thistle is beautiful, but, and that is a big but, I am forever working with neighbors to limit them on the properties. This year especially, the Canada and some Bull thistles are all over the place. I am not a fan of that! They seem to come back year after year no matter what I do. Jack

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  4. Yes, Jack, it is true that a well behaved plant in one country or region can become quite a problem in another. It seems most plants I research have invasive plant status somewhere! In the UK we too have problems with foreign introductions that have escaped gardens and rampaged across the countryside.
    Over here at least though, this particular thistle is remarkably rare in the wild, and although it does self seed in the garden, we find only a couple of dozen come up each year- mostly favouring drier gravel paths...

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  5. Chris, maybe they named donkey not to mention a stupid. It would became food for stupids this way, which would be more appropriate! :)

    I love this plant, shame I can't find seeds nor plants anywhere in Italy. This plant I think has something to do with the symbol of Scotland, doesn't it?
    Alberto.

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  6. Hello Alberto. It is posible that with your warmer drier climate it could become a nuisance weed in Italy. Perhaps better to enjoy seeing it in photos rather than fighting it in your own garden!
    Interestingly, in the cooler wetter climate of Scotland it does not thrive so much. Although the Cotton Thistle is also sometimes called the 'Scotch Thistle,' it only resembles the shorter wild thistle of Scotland's emblem....

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  7. What a beauty! Thanks for the explanation above -- you answered my question! Cheers.

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  8. Glad I dropped by, it is such a long time since I last saw this plant. I have seen this Thistle in gardens in our area, perhaps it was in the particularly fine summers which we had even up here, when was that, well I think it may have been in the early nineties. I will look forward to dropping by again.

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  9. Thanks Alistair. Such silvery plants thrived in the drier, warmer nineties....

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  10. They photograph well, these silvery thistles, and I can see they have fine garden uses. The photos recall old graphic images. I like the look very much on paper, a little scary in the ground.

    But we gardeners must also cultivate courage...

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  11. We will certainly need all the courage we can muster later on today, as we have to grapple with one of these prickly customers to pull it out of the ground....

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