Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Scotch thistle

The thistle has long been Scotland’s floral emblem, along with England’s rose (Rosa), Ireland’s shamrock (usually Trifolium dubium) and Wales’ daffodil (Narcissus) or leek (Allium porrum).

According to Tess Darwin in her Scots Herbal (1996) this association came about because of ‘the somewhat unlikely story that in the eleventh century, invading Danes were repelled when they landed on a beach of the scratchy plant, so that their yells awoke the locals who sprang to their own defence’.  Thistles appeared on coins minted in 1470 during the reign of James III, and by early in the sixteenth century had become a symbol of the Scottish royal family.

It is doubtful if the concept of the Scots thistle was ever restricted to one species, but this has not discouraged people from trying to pin it down.  Some have suggested that it is really the decorative cotton thistle, Onopordum acanthium, believed to be an ancient introduction to Britain which could have been cultivated in royal gardens and hence become associated with the monarchy.  It appears that the first association between cotton thistle and Scotland dates from King George IV’s visit to the country in 1822:

‘Soon after the King’s visit … some seeds were presented to the botanic garden at Bury St Edmunds [Suffolk] by a relation of the Bishop of London, who received them as seeds of the identical thistle, carried in the processions that attended His Majesty in Scotland; these developed into Onopordum acanthium‘[1].

King George’s visit to Scotland stimulated a great amount of somewhat spurious pageantry, so it is possible that the cultivated cotton thistle replaced the spear thistle (Cirsium vulgare), a common weed, at this time.

Other writers have identified the Scotch thistle as borriquero thistle (Onopordum illyricum, syn. O. arabicum). cardoon (Cynara cardunculus), dwarf thistle (Cirsium acaule), globe thistle (Echinops ritro)melancholy thistle (Cirsium natans), milk thistle (Silybum marianum), musk thistle (Carduus natans),  and woolly thistle (Cirsium eriophorum) [2].

All of these species are members of the Daisy Family (Asteraceae, formerly Compositae), but in recent years an unrelated plant Eryngium, a non-native plant related to the native sea holly (E. maritimum), seems to be gaining favour as the thistle of Scotland [3].

1. Denson, J. 1832, The thistle of Scotland, Gentleman’s Magazine 8: 335-6.

2. Dickson, J. & Walker, A. 1981. What is the Scottish thistle?, Glasgow Naturalist 20(2): 1-21.

3. See ‘Scottish Thistle’ on this website.

Images: main, fridge magnet in the shape of a thistle and incorporating other Scottish motifs; made in China, purchased in Edinburgh, August 2017; upper inset, fudge on sale in Edinburgh gift shop, November 2015; middle inset,  Scottish Tourist Board logo, Edinburgh, August 2017; bottom inset, cotton thistle, Saffron Walden, Essex, July 2019.

Edited 19 July 2019.