What's in flower...
Wooly Thistle © Maurits Fontein
As Scotland winds down after the Commonwealth Games, DWT Conservation Officer Maurits Fontein gives the thistle a closer look… and finds out why it’s the national emblem.
Out of 11 species of ‘prickly’ thistle in the UK, we have eight on our west Dorset reserves. Thistles are a key nectar source for butterflies while its seeds provide much needed food for a variety of farmland birds like goldfinches. While they can easily become dominant on our grasslands due to being not very palatable to our cattle, we do have to manage them to ensure a balanced environment.
The two most common types of thistle in the UK are Creeping and Spear thistle. Both are listed as injurious weeds under the Weeds Act 1959, which means that measures to prevent the spread of these species maybe required if there is a threat to agricultural production.
Powerstock Common Nature Reserve, next door to Kingcombe, is one of the best places to see a range of thistles. The Creeping, Spear and Marsh thistle all are now turning to seed with goldfinches tucking in, along the old railway cutting we have some of our most beautiful and rarest thistles coming into flower; Dwarf, Carline and Woolly Thistle. They only grow here as they like calcareous soils.
Dwarf or Stemless thistle is the one you don’t notice until you sit down …!
Woolly thistle, as the name suggests, are thickly cobwebbed with white wool, and are large unmistakably beautiful statuesque plants.
Carline thistle is very different as the flower is a straw-yellow colour, again very unmistakable.
So why is the Thistle the national emblem of Scotland? In truth, no-one knows! But according the official tourist board VisitScotland: “legend has it that a sleeping party of Scots warriors were saved from ambush by an invading Norse army when one of the attackers trod on a thistle with his bare feet. His cries raised the alarm, the roused Scots duly defeated the invaders, and the thistle was adopted as the symbol of Scotland. Unfortunately, there is no historical evidence for this, but Scots, like other nations, love a good story.”