Case Of The Exploding Spear Thistle

This plant is a Spear thistle Cirsium vulgare also known as the Bull or Common thistle, and the most likely candidate for the role of ‘National Flower of Scotland’, although this particular one is growing in Much Wenlock beside the allotment hedge. I’m not sure why the Scots particularly took thistles to heart (a prickly enterprise if ever there was one), though there are possibly clues (not always decipherable) in Hugh MacDiarmid’s 1926 epic stream of consciousness in which one features. It is called A Drunk Man Looks At A Thistle, and at 2,685 lines long, and written in Border Scots dialect, is a challenging read, though the version at the link above does provide a glossary here and there. Go there if you wish to discover some stunning Scots vocabulary.

Here are two tiny, rather more accessible excerpts, the first describing the thistle seen in the moonlight; the second likening it to the chief drone on a set of bagpipes:

The thistle canna vanish quite.
Inside a’ licht its shape maun glint,
A spirit wi’ a skeleton in’t.


Plant, what are you than? your leafs
Mind me o the pipes lod drone
– And aa your purply tops
Are the pirly-wirly notes
That gang staggerin ower them as they groan

And then this is what happens next, in my version of reality that is:


…a ‘pirly-wirly’ explosion of would-be thistles. Those floating seed heads get everywhere, making it yet another highly successful pest of farm fields and gardens. In its favour, the flowers are much loved by moths, butterflies and bees (as well as being most striking to look at) and birds, especially goldfinches, like to feed on the seeds.


Six Word Saturday

40 thoughts on “Case Of The Exploding Spear Thistle

  1. ‘Pirly wirly staggerin’ is priceless, Tish! I’m not well versed in Scottish poetry but we’ve certainly got a thistle or two round here. Happy Saturday! 🙂 🙂

  2. They certainly do get everywhere. They made to Australia and have colonized many areas. Over here they are classified as a noxious weed.

  3. I think we need Anabel from Glasgow gallivanteer to decipher this Tish. We once had a Scottish friend with a very strong accent and Jack would always just sit nodding never knowing what she was talking about. I love the structural form of thistles

    1. The poem is quite hard work to fathom. And I chose the more obvious bits. There was one stanza (I think) about a chap in his kilt jumping over a wall, wearing no knickers and landing on a thistle, and thus emitting ‘a whistle’ that could not be matched by anything that even Schoenburg could come up with. If I translated it aright of course 🙂

  4. If only the birds would eat all of the seeds. Can’t tell you how many we have choped down in the pastures.They are pretty even though they are bad.

  5. Beautiful though, We have a relative of hers in New Mexico: Cirsium neomexicanum who, unlike other varieties, tend to be less ‘noxious’

  6. beautiful plant, difficult to love when you’ve stepped on the new leaves, barefoot; but the goldfinches feast there, come fall, so all is forgiven. My own fault, actually, I used to use thistle seed in the finch feeder, and…well…now they gather their own and I wear boots outside.

    Loved the bit of poem, managed to get all the way through it without too much trouble–I found, if you read dialect poetry out loud it sometimes gives you the words you need…

    1. Yes, you’re so right about reading dialect out loud. Suddenly it starts making sense. Barefoot thistle encounters, however, are definitely to be avoided 🙂

  7. I feel as though I am following you around Tish. Yet another I photographed on Thursday. Seems these thistles stretch from one end of the British Isles to the other!

  8. Stunning photos of the monster! I think the attempt to replicate home of our early Scottish settlers has a lot to answer for. Have you read the whole poem? Do you have Scottish blood???

    1. No, I’ve not read the whole poem. Much of it looks inscrutable. It mostly seems to be the state of Scotland stream of consciousness. And no. No Scots blood as far as I know, though I did live in Aberdeen for a few years where they have their own vernacular, Doric.

  9. Love your garden images, beautiful. The thistle thrives here in our wild garden as well, I let it be. It’s a better pest than stinging nettle.

  10. What was it about the 1920s and Celtic writers’ impenetrable prose or poetry? Joyce, McDairmid. I do love reading Scots though. I think it’s still the language of my inner voice. Which I suppose only demonstrates that you can take the girl out of Kirkcaldy but you can’t take Kirkcaldy out of the girl.

      1. So far mine have looked beautiful but haven’t produced anything worth eating. Thinking about the thistle, maybe the Scots liked it because some varieties can be made into a type of porridge. 😉

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