by Jane Scully
This is a very prickly plant (I can attest to that!) with a spiny-winged stem and large, rose-purple rayless flower heads surrounded by spiny, yellow-tipped bracts. It looks like a purple-headed shaving brush, about 2" wide. The heads have about 100 florets. Healthy plants may produce 30 to 60 flower heads in clusters of 1 to 5 per branch.
The 3" to 6" leaves, like prickly "wings," protect the flowers from predators and wildflower pickers. The plant grows from 2' to 6' tall along roadsides, in pastures and in waste places. Their blooming season is July to September, making them major additions to the fall scene.
The thistle is the national emblem of the Scots. This dates back to the time when the Danes invaded Scotland. It is said that the Danes, hoping to sneak up on the Scots, took off their boots and began creeping through the fields when one soldier stepped on a prickly thistle and cried out. The Scots were warned and leapt to their arms to defend themselves and their country. From this legend came the superstition that whoever wore the thistle was safe from harm.
Goldfinches feed off the fluffy seeds of the thistle (one of a few birds that do like thistle seed.) Caterpillars of the thistle butterfly spin their webs around the leaves. And many butterflies, including black swallowtail seen here, enjoy their nectar.
Photos by the author