Scotch Thistle: A Friend Inweed
There is an old saying that goes “a weed is just a flower in the wrong place”, but that really just doesn't apply in the wilder places of our world, since there really is no wrong place for them. Many so-called-weeds are actually quite useful, and beneficial to have around, but some plants can require a second look, or more depending on the time in the growing season, in order to see all of their possible uses. Especially the ones that are prickly and can be hard to get along with. Scotch Thistle is one such plant. I have read some pretty extensive write-ups on some of its uses. I've read that the younger shoots, once all of the tiny spines have been removed, are edible and have a taste and texture reminiscent of asparagus. However, living in the temperate rain forest of Southeast Tennessee I have only stored this information for a later date if it becomes necessary, as there are many more appealing wild foods in the forest here in my opinion. However in the autumn and winter seasons it quite often serves another great purpose for me.
Scotch Thistle, much like every other type of thistle I have encountered, is a forbidding sort of plant. It has sharp thorns over the entire surface of the plant; stalk, stems, leaves, and flowers. Walking fields with dense populations of it can even be rather painful. The buds and flowers are no exception, the buds are covered in a formidable array of small but very sharp spines that are hardly bigger than a coarse hair. These can penetrate skin and then break off below the surface becoming an itchy and painful annoyance. I have yet to find a use for the plant at this stage of growth, but it does produce a distinct silhouette that makes it easy for me to spot swaying in the wind at a distance, and make note of its location for future use on other outings.
In time the buds bloom and become, in my opinion, beautiful purple flowers. They have a rather unique and almost alien appearance, though not quite as alien as English thistle, that helps them stand out even more. The big purple puffs swaying in the wind are easily spotted in a field of green even from a good distance away. Then near the end of the summer season the pollinated flowers turn from purple to white, and will be even easier to spot at a distance than during any of the other phases of growth.
In this phase of the plant's life the thistle seeds have been fertilized. Now the moisture has content of the fine hairs has been greatly reduced. At this point the thistle flowers look like big fluffy balls of cotton swaying in the breeze, The dried seeds are ready to start their airborne journey in hopes of proliferating the plant line, and sometimes one can spot the plants by clouds of thistle seeds traveling on strong gusts of wind. In the above pic you can see the fine hairs of the airborne seeds that are beginning to fly away. This is the phase of growth where I find the thistle plant to be most beneficial to me personally in my wilderness travels.
Those fine hairs are made for catching the wind and transporting the seed to another location, but they are also fantastic for catching the sparks from a ferrocerium rod. Since they are on tall stalks swaying in the breeze, the thistle flowers dry out quicker after a rain than other commonly used organic tinder materials that are found closer to the ground. Because of this they make an excellent first stage or flash tinder. When dry to do tend to flash, and thus burn up too quickly to ignite twigs in some cases. However, when layered along with nearly dry dead grasses and leaves, and the dead and dried hollow woody stalks of other plants in the fields – including dried thistle stalks and leaves later in the season – before adding the more damp solid wood twigs, they make wonderful first stage in an ignition system. This way, when the fines hairs catch the sparks and flair into flames, they start a chain reaction and ignite in succession the slightly more damp layers above that would not easily take the ferro rod sparks on their own.
There are other thistle plants that are useful in this way. English Thistle, which is often taller and easier to spot and with bright pink flowers, is one. Sow Thistle, a shorter scrubbier thistle plant that has smaller bright yellow flowers, also works well. As an old mentor once told me, if you focus more on common characteristics than plant names in some cases, you will find other plants in other plant families that behave the same ways and can serve some of the same uses. He always encouraged me to experiment with characteristics in the field, and for that I am eternally grateful, it has come in handy on numorous occasions.