marsh thistle



marsh thistle defined in 1912 year

marsh thistle - MARSH THISTLE (Carduus palustris);
marsh thistle - The Thistle represents part of the primeval curse on the earth in general and man in particular - "thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee," and the farmer in the new lands of Australia and Canada would say that the curse is still active. In the Old World, though the thistle is found everywhere, the exigencies of long ages of civilisation have brought about an ordered balance between the plant and animal worlds, and man is master, but in countries such as Australia, Canada and British Columbia, where both man and plant are settlers on virgin soil, the plant has become a veritable "thorn in the flesh," and a fight to the death has resulted. The plant opened the campaign by choking the crops; in Victoria, Australia, for instance, it almost ruined them - and man retorted by passing Acts of Parliament against it, and compelling all to join in the fight. It was useless for one man to exterminate his thistles if thistle down from his neighbours' fields floated over the ground he had cleared, so every man is now compelled to root out within fourteen days any thistle that may lift up its head, and government inspectors see that he does so under penalty of a heavy fine.

But if from man's point of view the thistle may be an unmitigated nuisance, from the plant-world point of view it represents the highest pinnacle of success. It is, so to speak, the successful business man. At every point its interests are safeguarded; it is armed against all attacks, its hardness causes it to overcome all difficulties, its endurance enables it to persist even under most adverse conditions, while by well-organised co-operation it obtains the maximum results with the minimum expenditure. Finally, just as that man is richest who has the fewest needs, so the thistle, by making the least possible claim upon its environment, inherits the land.

The thistle portrayed in the photograph is the Marsh Thistle, common everywhere in rank, moist meadows and uncultivated marshes, but especially at home on hedge and ditch sides.

"Poor little vagabond wayside thistle,
In the ditch was his only safe retreat;
Flung out of the field as soon as found there,
And banish'd the garden, where could he stay?
Wherever he roam'd still fortune frowned there,
And wherever he settled they spurn'd him away,"
wrote Lord Lytton.

Its stems rise stiffly and almost unbranching four or five feet high as a general rule, but in exceptional soil and surroundings they may double this height. It is the tallest of all our native thistles and is crowned in July and August by clusters of purple-red flower-heads. Right along the furrowed length of the stems narrow green wings stand out carrying an armour of sharp spines. Long, narrow jagged leaves, similarly armed, rise stalkless from it at intervals, and stem and leaves together present a formidable front. Wisely, for the plant's sake, for under these lines of defence the stem is sweet, eatable and nutritious; in fact, when Evelyn wrote his diary under the second Charles, he specially mentions them as used for food. The very young leaves and stems, before the spines had hardened, were put into salads; when they were a little older they were cooked before eaten. Therefore, a donkey in browsing upon them knows what is good, though nothing but the iron palate of that beast could negotiate the prickles.

The thistle belongs to the composite order of flowers, where the flowers are massed together in a peculiarly intimate way on the flattened end of the leaf-stalks, and all are surrounded by a cup of green bracts - known as the involucre - which takes the place of individual calyces. The daisy and dandelion arc its relatives, though in a more advanced state of elaboration; indeed in the thistle we have a good example of the composite flower in an early and relatively simple stage of development. For all the florets are precisely alike, there is no division of them into ray and disk florets as in the daisy; all have a calyx merely composed of hairs which rise from the top of the seed-case, all have a tube-shaped corolla, very minute indeed, but composed of five line-like petals all joined together. Within the tube are five of the most attenuated stamens, their heads united, and in the centre of them is the column which arises from a seed-box that lies below. The calyx has been turned into hairs because the individual flowers, pressed closely one against another, have no need of a supporting cup, while the feathery ring makes eventually a most effective parachute, and is of every possible assistance when the florets die.

Each little flower provides honey lavishly, and keeps it in its narrow corolla tube. In due time insect visitors arrive, for all sorts love the thistle whose honey is accessible to even those flies who have no long probosces. Ring after ring of florets yield up their pollen, and sweep it out to stand in a ball at their mouths - the movement begins in the outermost rows and works inwards day by day - and insect after insect comes and transfers it from floret to floret, from flower-head to flower-head, even from plant to plant. On one allied thistle over eighty kinds of visitors - bees, butterflies and flies of all kinds - were noticed.

The days pass, the flower clusters change into rather dirty white feathery brushes. Then one day the wind blows and the community is hustled out of its home; the parachutes have by now grown to quite a respectable size, so the fruits are wafted by their means on a search for pastures new. Each parachute is only lightly attached, and if it jars on a branch or grazes a corn-stalk the little hard fruit lets go and falls promptly to the earth, and the thistledown goes sailing on. The majority of the pieces of thistledown that float across our path on summer evenings have already lost the burden they were formed to carry.

If one of the thistledown hairs be looked at under a microscope it will be seen to consist of a central rib fringed on either side like a quill feather. Whether the hairs of a "pappus" are feathery or merely quite simple and straight seems a small enough point, but some botanists lay great stress on it, and they divide the thistles into two groups, according as they possess straight or feathery sailing-hairs. The straight-haired ones are called Carduus - the true thistles; the feathery ones are known as Cnicus or Cirsium. Goldfinches are very fond of thistle seed, and it is sometimes said that they also like the down to line their nests with, but this is obviously a mistake, for nests need lining in the spring, and the plant can supply down only in late summertime.

There are eleven British native thistles, but they have a great tendency to fertilise among each other, so hybrids are frequently met with which exhibit the qualities of both parents.

The Scottish emblem, in the strict botanical sense, is not a true thistle, though very closely allied to one.

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