Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Last of the Thistles

Carlina acaulis growing in Bonnefont Garden.

Since we have received appreciations from so many thistle lovers, I thought I would finish out the series with the carline thistles, the last thistles in our medieval plant collection to bloom. Unlike other thistles, their flowers have a daisy form consisting of a disk with rayed petals. They are dry flowers of the “ever-lasting” type, sometimes described as straw flowers. The carline thistles are plants of poor, dry soils. The U.S.D.A. lists the common carline thistle, Carlina vulgaris, as an invasive weed reported in New York and New Jersey, but no other state, although I have never observed them in either. Has anyone seen it in their locale? (The U.S.D.A. site notes that it is not necessarily the case that a plant is established only in the states indicated by shading on their map. It may well grow elsewhere, but its presence has not been reported to the U.S.D.A.)

The perennial stemless species, Carlina acaulis, native to Europe, strongly resembles the closely related Eurasian biennial Carlina vulgaris, except that the rosette of spiny leaves lies close to the ground, while the common carline thistle has a short stem. The leaves of C. acaulis are also longer than those of C. vulgaris.

The generic name derives from Emperor Charlemagne. It is said that a dreadful plague decimated his army, and he prayed that the rest of his soldiery be delivered from the pestilence. In a dream, an angel instructed him to shoot an arrow into the air, and mark where it struck the ground. The herb that it pierced would provide the cure he sought. (Maude Grieve, A Modern Herbal, 1931.)

I haven’t found the medieval source for this story, but it is wonderfully depicted in a fifteenth-century German herbal known as the Auslasser Herbal, illustrated by Brother Vitus Ausslasser, a monk at the monastery of St. Sebastian in Eberberg. The herbal is in the collection of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich. Brother Auslasser shows the emperor kneeling before a carline thistle, stem and all. The plant is larger than he is and appears to hover in the air above him. An angel appears above and to the right of the thistle, and points to it with his left hand. I haven’t been able to find the image online, but it is beautifully reproduced in The Illustrated Herbal (Wilfred Blunt and Sandra Raphael, 1979).

???Deirdre Larkin

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Comments (2)

  1. Hanne Says:

    Have a look to (last page you’ll find an illustration).
    The legend’s source could be the “Vita Karoli” by medieval Einhard (can’t check it at the moment).

  2. Deirdre Larkin Says:


    I’m very grateful for the link you provided, as it is a wonderful illustration. I did consult the Vita Karoli as you suggested, but Einhard does not refer to a plague in any of his accounts of Charlemagne’s military campaigns, nor did I find any material of a legendary character, with the exception of the omens that presaged the emperor’s death.

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