In this educative and inspiring column, Girija Viraraghavan discusses, in detail, the flowers found in the wild and in the gardens of many homes in Kodaikanal. This series will feature a number of her articles, each describing a flowering species found in our hills. These pieces, edited and adapted for today, first appeared in The Friendly Post, a Kodai newsletter that was published from 2003 to 2011.
The thistle is an architectural plant that is native to our hills. Thistles cover a large range of plant species, but the one we have on our hills was botanically called Cnisus earlier, and is now called Cirsium. Quite odd names, what?
I am sure you would have seen this striking plant. It sprouts up here and there by waysides—while having a beautiful geometric formation, the vicious-looking prickly leaves deter you from taking a closer look. And that is why it is commonly called ‘thistle’, for this is the name for a group of flowering plants characterized by leaves with sharp prickles on the margins. Most belong to the botanical plant family Asteraceae. Prickles often occur all over the plant—on the stem and the flat parts of the leaves. These are an adaptation that protects the plant from herbivorous animals, discouraging them from feeding on the plant.
Our thistle got its name from the Greek chnizen, meaning ‘to wound’, a reference to the prickly leaves. Belonging to the family/ genus Compositae or Asteraceae, its full name is Cirsium wallichii var. wightii, commemorating in one fell swoop two eminent botanists, Nathaniel Wallich and Robert Wight. Cirsium derives from the Greek word kirsos, meaning ‘swollen vein’—thistles were used as a remedy against swollen veins. We are indebted to Wight for his plant explorations and careful documentation of so many of our endemic Shola plant species, and Wallich was surgeon and botanist, first with the Danish East India Company and later with the British East India Company.
Thistles are mostly native to Eurasia and northern Africa, with about 60 species found in North America (although several species have been introduced outside their native ranges).
Thistles are known for their effusive flower heads, usually purple, rose or pink, but also yellow or white. The radially symmetrical disk flowers are at the end of the branches. They have erect stems and prickly leaves, with a characteristic enlarged base of the flower, which is commonly spiny. They can spread by seed and also by rhizomes below the surface. The seed has tufts of tiny hair.
Most species are considered weeds. But some are cultivated in gardens for their aesthetic value and to attract butterflies and birds.
The most well-known thistle is the Scottish thistle—it is the national emblem of Scotland and appears on its flag. This is because of the legend that the thistle saved the country in the Middle Ages, when the Scots and the Norsemen were at war. Under the cover of darkness, the Norsemen managed to land unobserved on the coast of Scotland. Removing their boots, they crept on bare feet towards the unsuspecting Scottish army. Suddenly, a sharp cry of pain shattered the stillness. A Norse soldier had stepped on a thistle. Thus alerted to the surprise attack, the Scots sprang into action and drove the invaders from their shores.
The Scottish thistle is an exquisite plant, with purple-magenta flower heads, and is considered to be one of the most beautiful wild plants of the UK. While our local thistle is striking, one really cannot call it beautiful. Architectural, yes. Arresting, yes. The geometric leaves are riveting, yes. But beautiful, no.
Thistles have medicinal and culinary properties. While Pliny recorded that it could return hair to bald heads, in medieval and even modern times it was said to be a remedy for a range of illnesses, from a sluggish liver to high cholesterol, and for vertigo and headaches. In Portugal, thistle flowers are used in cheese-making as a source of enzymes to coagulate the milk.
Seen in low-lying marshes, fallow ground or degraded lands, the plant’s creamish flower heads bloom from June to September. But it is not the flowers of this common Indian thistle that are significant; rather, it is the architectural beauty of the thorny plant that sets it apart.
Sadly, over the years, with development and pollution, thistles are fast disappearing and one hardly sees them anymore.
*Some subspecies like Cnisus benedictus, The Holy Thistle, still retain the old botanical name.