Sandy’s Garden

The “Scotch” Thistle

My much-prized and well-thumbed copy of The Gardener’s Perpetual Almanack, published by Thames and Hudson, includes this quotation from a much older book, namely The Gardener’s and Naturalist’s Almanack for 1853: “The Scotch Thistle, although possessing no beauty of flower, is remarkable for its size and sturdy appearance; which, in the open border and in favourable situations, will attain a height of eight or nine feet. The plant is not only ornamental but useful, as the stems will make handsome walking-sticks; and as they are hollow, they may be applied to different useful purposes.” The author of those words was Joseph Harrison, who leaves us to speculate as to the uses to which the long, hollow stems of Scotch Thistles might be put; a giant’s drinking straw? A close-range pea-shooter? A bass vuvuzela?

And a much more recent gardening writer, Sarah Raven, is equally enthusiastic for the Scotch Thistle. Her words are quoted in Garden Plants for Scotland, published by Frances Lincoln Ltd., and are: “The most architectural and statuesque plant I grow, it makes a superb natural windbreak if you live in a windy spot.” Despite this powerful recommendation, the authors of the book, Kenneth Cox and Raoul Curtis-Machen, add this rider: “To withstand Scottish gales however, we recommend planting with a few supporting shrubs. You probably don’t need reminding that it has pinkish-purple flowers in summer with a circle of spines at the base of the flower and on the leaves. It can reach over 2 metres in height and 1.2 metres in spread,” which is rather less than was expected of the plant in 1853.

Now, to add a slight element of confusion, here is a quotation from Geoffrey Grigson’s The Englishman’s Flora, published by Helicon, another well-thumbed volume from my horticultural library. In the entry for Onopordium acanthium, Mr. Grigson writes, “This is what the Englishman means by the Scotch Thistle, a plant he has grown himself and still grows now and again in the garden, a plant which was probably introduced, and which is not at all common north of the border.” There’s an interesting observation on the Scotch Thistle … “which is not at all common north of the border.” Indeed, the common names by which Onopordium acanthium is known include Pig-leaves in Yorkshire, Mary’s Thistle in Northamptonshire and Rough Dashle in Devon, with the name Scotch Thistle being found originally only in Berwickshire. And the doyen of seventeenth century English herbalists, Nicholas Culpeper, who knew the plant as the Cotton Thistle … a name by which it is widely known … wrote, “It grows on divers ditch-banks, and in the corn fields and highways generally throughout England; it is also found in gardens.” Note that; it grows in England.

So how did Onopordium acanthium come by the common name ‘the Scotch Thistle’? Well, Mrs. C. M. Grieve, authoress of “A Modern Herbal”, published in 1931 by Jonathan Cape Ltd., and yet another valued volume in my library, writes: “It is generally considered to be this species of Thistle that was originally the badge of the House of Stuart, and came to be regarded as the national emblem of Scotland. The first heraldic use of the plant would appear to be in the inventory of the property of James III of Scotland, made at his death in 1458, where a hanging embroidered with ‘thrissils’ is mentioned.” The Order of the Thistle, the second-oldest Order of Chivalry in Britain, was instituted in 1540 by James V; and the expressive motto of that Order, Nemo me impune lacessit (Wha daur meddle wi’ me), is surely justified by the Scotch Thistle’s impressive spines. I know, that doesn’t answer my question about the reason for its name; and the best answer I can find is, “Who knows?”

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society