Posts Tagged ‘thistle’

Friday, July 30, 2010

Blessed Thistle

Blessed thistle Blessed thistle spines Blessed thistle flower

Above: Three images of the blessed thistle (Cnicus benedictus). The low stature and unremarkable appearance of this plant belie its medieval reputation as a plague cure and a panacea. The lax stems and spiny, light green leaves are covered with a fine, white down; the spines that subtend the developing flowerhead are a protection against grazing animals. The yellow flowers of this annual thistle appear in July; once the seeds have set, the plant dies. Photographs by Corey Eilhardt.

The humble Cnicus benedictus, a plant of waste ground and stony soil native to the Mediterranean, was a medieval panacea whose reputation survived undiminished into the Renaissance. The sixteenth-century English herbalist John Gerard notes that this wild medicinal plant of southern Europe was “diligently cherished in gardens in these Northern parts.” Gerard also attests that the herb was known everywhere in Europe by the medieval Latin name Carduus benedictus; the common names by which it is known today preserve this designation: blessed or holy thistle in English, benedikten distel in German; chardon b√©nit or chardon santo in French, cardo benedetto in Italian, cardo bendito in Spanish.

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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. Read more »

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Another Thistle


Left: Silybum marianum, the Marian thistle, is also known as milk thistle, because of the milky-white streaks on the spiny leaves; right: The thistle appears outside and below the enclosure of the captive Unicorn, near the Madonna lily (Lilium candidum), another plant associated with the Virgin. Visit the Collection Database to see the detail in context and learn more about The Unicorn in Captivity.

While thistles were a thorn in the farmer’s side, then as now, virtually all plants were accorded medicinal value in the Middle Ages. Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) was eaten as a vegetable, and is grown in a bed devoted to pottage plants here at The Cloisters, but it has a rightful place in the medicinal collection as well. Read more »

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Thistle Tribe

Cotton thistle flourishing in Bonnefont Garden. The leaves of the cotton thistle are thickly felted with white down.

The most imposing of the several thistles we cultivate at The Cloisters, the stately cotton thistle has a presence that appeals to modern sensibilities. The silvery-white leaves are deeply cut and very handsome: the species name acanthium denotes their resemblance to the foliage of the acanthus. Some value cotton thistle as an ornamental in contemporary gardens, although others consider Onorpordum acanthium to be a weed. (A weed is a plant you don’t want, while an herb is a plant with a use. Many of the plants we grow in the gardens of The Cloisters are considered weeds in our time and place, but were herbs in the Middle Ages.) Once the purplish-pink flowers of the cotton thistle have withered, it is important to remove the heads so that the many seeds do not disperse to the four winds and colonize the world. Read more »