The very beautiful (and curious) cotton thistle

20 June 2022
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By Jose Luis Gallego. Environmental communicator (@ecogallego)

 

On our walks through the countryside, and especially around vineyards, our first contact with the diversity of flora tends to come from the plants growing along the verges. 

Humble, discreet and often overlooked, among the varied mosaic of shapes and colours created by such plants, some species stand out in particular for their huge size and singular beauty. And, among these, the focus of this month's article takes pride of place: the cotton thistle, which is at its peak during this month of June. Scientists have classified this plant under the name of Onopordum acanthium, but more about that later. 

Humble, discreet and often overlooked, among the varied mosaic of shapes and colours created by such plants, some species stand out in particular for their huge size and singular beauty. And, among these, the focus of this month's article takes pride of place: the cotton thistle, which is at its peak during this month of June. Scientists have classified this plant under the name of Onopordum acanthium, but more about that later. 

Before I describe and pay tribute to this incredibly beautiful flower, however, let me also endorse its value. Because not only has the cotton thistle's spectacular beauty gone unacknowledged by most people but we're probably witnessing one of the most exemplary cases of injustice and infamy towards one of the most representative species of our botany and, I repeat, one of the most beautiful.

In many parts of Spain the common name for this flower, the "cardo borriquero", is seen as disparaging and synonymous with ugly, almost an insult. However, if you take a moment to look at the photos in this article and admire its beauty, you'll realise there's no popular saying that could be further from the truth.  

 

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Flower of the cotton thistle. Photograph: Jose Luis Gallego. 

 

The cotton thistle has a composite flower and belongs to the aster or daisy family, like the artichoke, sunflower, chamomile and marigold, among other species. Its preferred habitat is wasteland and verges (often by the sea), as it's very undemanding in terms of soil quality. 

It can be readily identified by its tall, thick, rigid stem surrounded by thorns, like its leaves, which are lanceolate, toothed and slightly fleshy, and very large at the bottom of the plant. But what's particularly striking about this spectacular plant, which can grow to over two metres in height, is its attractive lilac flower, shaped like a large cluster and surrounded by long, sharp thorns.
 

 

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A field of cotton thistles in bloom. Photograph: Jose Luis Gallego. 

 

Among the lesser-noted curiosities of the common thistle, one of the most abundant and widespread species in the Mediterranean countryside, is that it's edible. In fact, it was cultivated for years as a legume, harvested before it flowered and with the upper part eaten like an artichoke, raw or cooked. 

The stems contain inulin, a starch-like substance, while grain-eating birds, and in particular one of the most beautiful of Iberia's fauna, visit the fields and verges where these thistles grow to pluck out the seeds, used as food and also to build their nests, as the seeds are covered by a hairlike substance similar to cotton wool. Hence the scientific name of the goldfinch, Carduelis carduelis, comes from the Latin for thistle: carduus. 

But speaking of scientific names, before I finish, and as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I'd like to tell you what is perhaps the most curious fact about the cotton thistle: the origin of its species name: Onopordum. This term comes from the Greek words onos (donkey) and porde (fart): yes, a fart as in wind or flatulence. It seems that it was Pliny the Elder (who lived between 23 and 79 AD) who observed how donkeys would fart enormously every time they ate this kind of thistle; they used to eat them to get rid of the gases that would bloat their stomachs during digestion. So curious was the famous Roman writer's observation that this property ended up giving the plant its name.

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