Haters and Lovers

Updated 5/18/2021: Corrected identification from Italian Thistle to Bull Thistle.

Bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare)

The Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare) has its haters and its lovers. Farmers and ranchers mostly hate it because it grows rapidly, forms dense impenetrable stands, is hard to get rid of, and cattle can’t eat it. For that it’s labeled a noxious weed in the UK, Australia, and ten U.S. states. The California Invasive Plant Council gives it a “moderate” invasiveness rating. Originally from Europe, it now grows wild in all 50 states. It favors disturbed soil and neglected places.

But it also has its lovers. It produces a copious amount of nectar, which draws a wide range of pollinator insects such as bees and butterflies. Some birds, such as goldfinches, appreciate the seeds. As a result, some farmers allow it to grow in controlled areas as a host for beneficial birds and insects. In a pinch, some parts of the plant can be eaten: peeled stems boiled, tap roots of young plants raw or cooked. The dried flowers are said to be used in rural Italy for curdling goats’ milk in cheese production.

As I’ve observed here repeatedly, just about every noxious local plant with the laudable exception of poison oak is found in Cesar Chavez Park.  This year, fortunately, thistles have had a quiet year, in contrast to last year when untimely and excessive mowing of fennel by park management produced a monster thistle crop.  This year the fennel has reasserted itself in most of the overcut areas. 

The Bull Thistle’s blooms are briefly fetching for their bold pinkness and their burstlike structure.  In keeping with my inclination to highlight points of beauty even in noxious creations, I give you these snapshots.

Note: The original publication of this post misidentified the plant as Italian Thistle. The post has been rewritten.

Bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare)

More about the Bull Thistle: Wikipedia CABI CalIPC

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