#90 Thistles





Vanessa Bell, Still Life with Flowers, 1923




The common name “thistle” is used to refer to numerous species of prickly weeds in the Asteraceae or daisy family, gray-leaved, bearing feathery or spiky purple efflorescences blooming out of globed-shape cups on “candelabra-like thorny and webbed stems” at various heights from ground-hugging to over six feet tall (Hogan 952). After blooming, the seed head forms a dense crown of thistledown similar to dandelion fluff, so efficient at spreadig seed that various thistles are now banned as invasive species (Ellacombe 310 and Wikipedia). In his entry on thistles in Shakespeare, Ellacombe states there are “fourteen species in Great Britain, arranged under the botanical families of of Carlina, Carduus, and Onopordon” (308), a count that corresponds closely to the fifteen genera listed in the Wikipedia entry.[1]  While claiming that “Poets cannot be expected to separate the various species of thistle,” in his study of wildflowers in British literature, Rendall singles out several particular varieties, including C. lanceolatus, the Spear-Plume Thistle “particularly well provided with prickles,” Carlina vulgaris or Carline Thistle,”easily distinguished because its flower lies on the ground,” and Onopordon acanthium, the Scotch or Cotton Thistle, all of which are implicated in the often repeated legend of how an invading Dane or Viking stepped on a Scottish thistle and made a noise that alerted the Scots to their danger; this incident led to James VII establishing the Order of the Thistle and produced the Scottish motto Nemo me impune lacessit, colloquially translated as “no one attacks me and gets away with it” (Heilmeyer 26; Rendall 225).



Spear Thistle






Although, as Ellacombe puts it, “What is the true Scotch Thistle even the Scotch antiquarians cannot decide” (311), as the symbol of Scotland, the generic thistle is associated by Greenaway with “Retribution” (40).


Thistles also have some Biblical or Christian symbolism.  They appear in Genesis, after the Fall, as one of the curses meted out to humans: “Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field” (3:18; referenced by Heilmeyer 26). Folkard recounts that the Milk thistle (Silybum marianum), which has milky veins in its leaves, is so-called because of the legend that Mary fell on one and her blood turned it white (284); Hogan adds that it was long used to “stimulate milk supply in nursing mothers” (1341). 

Milk Thistle,  EKS


            For the most part, however, thistles are, as Ellacombe summarizes, “the recognized symbol of untidiness and carelessness, being found not so much in barren ground as in good ground not properly cared for” (309).  Although there are occasional more light-hearted references to thistledown or to the thistle’s role in feeding insects and birds, the majority of appearances in British literature chronicled by Rendall in his seven pages of citations concerning thistles present the weed as a sign of rough ground, often as the result of wartime devastation. Shakespeare’s reference to “the humble bee on top of a thistle” in Midsummer Night’s Dream  (Act IV, sc 1, l. 10) represents the more benign allusions, while the description of war-torn France in Henry V as a land bearing nothing but “hateful Docks, rough Thistles, Kecksies, Burs” (V, 5, l. 51) is typical of the more martial associations with waste lands. Thomson’s paean to Summer (1727) calls attention to the cloud of thistledown over a “thistly lawn”: “A whitening sower of vegetable down/ / Amusive floats,”[2] and on a similarly light-hearted note Keats describes his friend Charles Armitage Brown as having a “bushy head of hair” resembling “the seeded thistle” before it sends “Its light balloons into the summer air” (both qtd. by Rendall 227). More negative examples of thistles can be found in Crabbe’s The Village (1783) where, as in Shakespeare, they conjure martial associations within a desert-like landscape: 

Rank weeds, that every art and care defy,

Reign o'er the land and rob the blighted rye:

There thistles stretch their prickly arms afar,

And to the ragged infant threaten war. (Book I, ll. 68-71; qtd by Randall 226) [3]


This note is also struck in Keats’ Lamia (1819) where the poet’s disdainare  for the sage is expressed by picturing him with a crown of thistles:

Let spear-grass and the spiteful thistle wage
War on his temples. Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy? (
Part II, ll. 227-30)


Ruskin represents the extreme edge of negative thistle imagery in his book on wild flowers, Proserpina (1875-85), where they appear as a pretext for a violent rant against his northern neighbors, presenting  the “stubbornness and ungraceful rectitude” of the stem of this  “prickly weed” as a symbol of the flaws in the Scotch national character (qtd. by Randall 229; also mentioned by Ellacomb 311).


There are some more balanced, even almost benign portrayals of thistles scattered through British literature.  Scottish poet, Robert Burns combines martial imagery with a certain light-hearted irresponsibility in “To a Haggis” (1787) where he pictures a rustic carrying a blade in his hands that he will make whistle as it cuts legs and arms and heads “Like taps o’ thrissle,”wacking off the enemies’ appendages like a boy switching the tops off weeds in a field.[4] Christina Rossetti, one of Woolf’s favorite poets, also manages to modulate her attitude towards thistles in her early poem, “A Farm Walk” (1866) where she marks “the sprouting thistle/Set up on waste patch of the lane/Its green and tender bristle (Randall 228). In his book on Sussex fauna, Wild Life in a Southern County, Richard Jeffries notes the beauty of thistles in waste ground: “Even the tall thistles of the ditch have their beauty—the flower has a delicate tint, varying with the species from mauve to purple; the humble-bee visits every thistle-bloom in his path, and there must therefore be sweetness in it”  (115)  An exquisitely detailed description of birds capturing thistledown for nest-building recognizes their ecological utility:

The dexterous way in which a bird helps itself to thistledown is interesting to watch. The thistle has no branch on which he can perch; he must take it on the wing. He flies straight to the head of the thistle, stoops as it were, seizes the down, and passes on with it in the bill to the nearest bough—much in the same way as some tribes of horsemen are related to pick up a lance from the ground whilst going at full speed (178; partially qtd by Randall 228).

            Woolf’s eighteen references to thistles and thistledown tend to present the prickly plants as emblems of wildness, disorder, and irresponsibility, though with more lightness than some of her predecessors and scarcely a trace of retribution. Her first few references are to thistledown floating in the air. The vegetable cloud makes its first appearance in The Voyage Out, where Rachel’s mind enters into “communion” with “the spirit of the sea, with the spirit of Beethoven Op. 111, even with the spirit of poor William Cowper” and ascends like a balloon into the heavens:  Like a ball of thistledown it kissed the sea, rose, kissed it again, and thus rising and kissing passed finally out of sight. The rising and falling of the ball of thistledown was represented by the sudden droop forward of her own head, and when it passed out of sight she was asleep” (37, end of Chapter 2).  In the small Asheham Diary which she began keeping in August 1917, recovering from a major nervous breakdown and beginning to write by making short descriptive entries mostly about the weather and other natural features, on three successive August days she records that “The thistledown has been blowing . . across the house & over the field very thick" (D1 44). Here the clouds of spores are seen as slightly oppressive.

Several years later, in April of 1921, thistledown is again evoked in describing the empty mind of H.A.L. Fisher who despite being privy to the inner workings of the government claims no responsibility for his decisions:  “Never was there a thinner lighter airier specimen. . . his words without body . . . after mouthing his meaning behold; it flew away like thistledown, & it appeared that this Cabinet Minister & representative of Great Britain in whose hands are armies & navies was dry & empty again—& asking me colloquially whether I remembered Aunt Mary on the donkey, which I did” (D2 113).  Another example of thistledown used as an element of portraiture, like the immature Rachel, his mind is a flighty ball of non-sequiturs, which makes him a bit of a donkey.


            Thistles next appear in Jacob’s Room (1929), recalling Burn’s rustic in the person of young Jacob, resentful of the arrival of his tutor: “’Oh, bother Mr. Floyd!’ said Jacob, switching off a thistle’s head, for he knew already that Mr. Floyd was going to teach them Latin, as indeed he did for three years in his spare time” (17). Decapitating the thistles relieves his anger at the curtailment of his freedom.

Woolf's densest patch of thistles appears in the Time Passes section of To the Lighthouse (1927) where three intrusions of the sturdy weeds emphasize the increasing disorder as nature begins to overtake the cultural edifice of the house.  A thistle “thrust[ing] itself between the tiles in the larder” is the first in a list of natural signs of decay that greet Mrs. Nab when she comes to clean after ten years (141).  While she has been absent, the beam of the lighthouse has passed over “the thistle and the swallow, the rat and the straw,” viewing the flora and fauna of detritus alike with “equanimity” (141), easily allowing the poppy to seed, the carnation to mate with the cabbage, the swallow to build a nest in the drawing room, and the “thistle to thrust aside the tiles” in the kitchen (141). 


Woolf repeats this use of the thistle as a signal of domestic decay in a letter written to Vita Sackville West three months after the publication of the novel when -- in a temper because she wants to begin writing The Moths (later The Waves) and has to write an article on Hemingway for the New York Herald Tribune instead -- she makes an elaborate vow never again to write for The Americans or for money: “may my stairs rot, and my pictures fall to the ground, and rats devour my carpet and linen; may the thistle sow itself in my drawing room, and the barley grow where my pillow used to be” (L3 416). Four years later, now deeply into manuscript corrections for the nearly finished novel, she once again invokes thistledown, this time as an emblem of freedom from editorial drudgery: “O to seek relief from this incessant correction (I am doing the interludes) and write a few words carelessly. Still better, to write nothing; to tramp over the downs, blown like thistle, as irresponsible” (D4 34). 

            Woolf’s remaining mentions of thistles and thistledown in the thirties vibrate within the associative parameters of freedom and decay.  Early in Bernard’s summation in The Waves (1931), as he begins to outline the characters of his friends, Neville is described as lazily detached: “lying on his back staring up at the summer sky. He floated among us like a piece of thistledown, indolently haunting the sunny corner of the playing-field, not listening, yet not remote” (TW 181). Her 1932 review of The Blecheley Diary of the Rev. William Cole once again features thistles on a country walk, echoing the Burnsian activity of decapitating thistle combs in a mood of melancholy carelessness: “Some spite has drawn a veil across your eyes. Indeed, there are pouches under them I could swear. You slouch as you walk. You switch at thistles half-heartedly with your stick. You do not much enjoy your food. Gossip has no relish for you” (E5 290).  A year later in Flush, however, thistles once again carry connotations of freedom and wildness: “Today the flower is a rose, tomorrow a lily; now it is the wild thistle on the moor, now the pouched and portentous orchid of the conservatory. So variously, so carelessly Flush embraced the spotted spaniel down the alley, and the brindled dog and the yellow dog—it did not matter which” (127).  In her 1935 satiric play Freshwater, thistles are again cited as an instance of domestic neglect when Mrs. Cameron’s comment on the activities of a donkey she is trying to photograph reveals the lack of a gardener’s tidying hand: “There! I say to the Ass, look up. And the Ass looks down. The donkey is eating thistles on the lawn!“ (16), an interesting if probably random re-connection of thistles with donkeys and figures in Woolf’s familial past. And, despite Hitler’s invasion of Austria and her own self-criticism of her recently completed anti-war essay Three Guineas  as “diluted drivel,” in her diary entry of March 12, 1938, a reference to thistledown once again  signals a lightness of mood as she describes the sudden appearance of her friend E.M.Forster: “Morgan was here—blown in like thistledown—a very round & voluminous down he is now: but with a breeze behind him” (D5 130).

            Woolf’s last reference to thistles is the only one with any Scottish connections and it is not even an image of the weedy flower, but is instead a mere mention of the Thistle Chapel in some notes of conversations overheard while visiting Dryburgh, the site of Sir Walter Scott’s grave. An anonymous lady comments on attending a service at the home of the Order of the Thistle in Edinburgh: “I hear the prayers, the young men the music. It was pretty well where they come in from the Thistle chapel. They passed me bang. I rose and moved along. There are some seats the people never come to, and often the best seats” (D5 153).  One suspects that, like Crabbe, Woolf preferred "the wild self-grown, self-supported unsightly weed” to any symbol of national solidarity, no matter how good the seats (E6 485).


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thistle  Accessed April 29, 2022.


[2] Woolf writes three times in her diary about reading Thomson’s long poem, once in August of 1924 (D2 310) and then again ten years later in October 1934 (D4 252, 258), after having purchased a four-volume set of Thomson’s works that had once belonged to Jane Austen (see D4, n. 34, p. 258). In Orlando (1928), Sir Nicholas Greene compares The Oak Tree favorably to Thompson’ Seasons during his second reading of Orlando’s masterwork in the early twentieth century, thankfully finding their poem to have “no trace. . . of the modern spirit” (206).


[3]  In February 1932 Woolf herself confessed to her nephew Julian that Crabbe “has a charm for me who worship[s] him” (L 4, 14), and shortly thereafter she wrote a short essay on Crabbe whom she praises for his “passion for the rejected and injured, the stunted, the hardy, the wild self-grown, self-supported unsightly weed,” genially proclaiming “He was himself a weed” (E6 485).  


[4]  Mentioned by Randall (231); see the website of the Alexandria Burns Club for the entire poem, accompanied by a helpful translation: http://www.robertburns.org.uk/Assets/Poems_Songs/toahaggis.htm Accessed May 4, 2022.

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Welcome to the Virginia Woolf Herbarium.  For many years I have been researching and writing about Virginia Woolf and parks, gardens, and fl...