Teasles look like cone-shaped thistles, about four inches long, surrounded by cup-shaped bracts and poised on long straight stems that can reach nearly eight feet tall.[i] In bloom, their tiny flowers, which open in a band around the middle and then radiate out towards top and bottom, are a light purple or lilac in color, but afterwards they dry into bold, exclamatory rods of prickles. Two species in the genus Dipsacus are most common in England: the common teasle, D. sylvestris which grows wild, and D. fullonum or Fuller’s teasle, which was domesticated and grown for use as combs or cards in raising the nap on woolen fabric, making it feel softer, more like cotton flannel (Rendall 201; Watts 378). By the twentieth century, the industrial use of teasles became too expensive and they stopped being grown commercially.[ii]
Being something of a weed, albeit a useful one, teasle seldom appears in literature, although the few citations I can locate were all potentially familiar to Woolf. Milton makes a somewhat disparaging reference to women whose “cheeks of sorry grain will serve to ply/ The sampler, and to teize the huswifes wooll” in Comus (ll. 75-1), a poem Woolf used in her first novel, The Voyage Out. In his compendium of references to Wild Flowers in [British] Literature, Rendall notes that in The Garden of Cyrus Sir Thomas Browne described teasle as “stemmed with flowers of the royall colour” (Rendall 202); in Night and Day, Ralph Denham reveals that he knows passages of Browne “nearly by heart (75), and in her 1923 review of a new edition of Browne’s Religio Medici, Urn Burial and The Garden of Cyrus, Woolf remarks that she knows the seventeenth-century writer’s work well enough to notice the “very occasional misprint” (E3 368).[iii] Rendall also praises the “good description” of a teasle on the Southern Downs in Richard Jefferies’ Wild Life in a Southern Country (Rendall 201). Jefferies was one of Woolf’s favorite nature writers; in an October 1927 letter to her nephew Julian about his recent poetry, she pairs Jeffries with W. H. Hudson as suggested models for careful observation and selection of natural detail (L3 432). Jeffreries’ detailed portrait of the plant includes information on how water can gather in the lower bracts “for several days after a shower, and is fatal to numbers of insects which climb up the stalk or alight on the leaves and fall in” (Jefferies 126) -- a situation which led to an on-going controversy, ignited by Charles Darwin’s son Francis, as to whether the teasle can be classified as carnivorous.[iv] In her Victorian Language of Flowers, Kate Greenaway designates the meaning of the teasle (and also the “Fuller’s Thistle”) as “Misanthropy,” probably a nod to the prickly quality of the dried flower rather than to its feeding habits when in bloom (40).
Woolf’s own references to teasles seem based more in natural than literary history. They appear in only one work, Jacob’s Room, as is often typical of her flower nods, in a trio of images, one of many spiky, purple plants made up of tiny composite blossoms which march through the novel as an ironic elegiac pastoral threnody.[v] First sighted by Jacob near Scarbourgh in “a hollow. . . beneath a ruin,” like Jeffries’ teasels located in a Sussex ditch (Jefferies 126), Woolf’s teasles are always associated with insects, in this first case with butterflies: commas and a white admiral (JR 22). Two chapters later, the teasles reappear near Mrs. Pascoe’s garden in Cornwall where a bee “having sucked its fill of honey” visits a teasel, presumably for a sip of water, followed by a newly emerged peacock butterfly which spreads the “blue and chocolate down on its wings” as it rests atop the sturdy flower (JR 53). The bee makes “a straight line to Mrs. Pascoe’s patch,” directing the gaze of some passing tourists to the picturesque old woman in a “print dress and white apron,” -- linking Milton’s housewife with Sir Thomas Browne’s purple standard and Jeffries’ insect-eating water source
[ii] For a history of the teasle’s use in the fabric industry see the article “Our Prickly Relationship with the Teasle” by Jacqueline Stuhmiller, The Land Steward, Spring 2012 (a quarterly publication by the Finger Lakes Land Trust):
Accessed April 24, 2022.
[iii] See Benjamin Hagen’s review of scholarship on Woolf and Browne in his essay “Sir Thomas Browne and the Reading of Remains in Orlando,” pp. 175-185 in Högberg, Elsa and Bromley, Amy, eds, Sentencing Orlando: Virginia Woolf and the Morphology of the Modernist Sentence. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press; 2018.
[v] See my essay on purple flowers in Jacob’s Room, “Floral Versions of the Pastoral in Jacob’s Room,” available on-line for those who cannot access the Brazilian anthology in which it was published: https://www.academia.edu/70078738/_Floral_Versions_of_the_Pastoral_in_Jacob_s_Room
Accessed April 28, 2022.