Cut thistles in May, they’ll grow in a day; Cut them in June, that is too soon; Cut them in July, then they will die
This summer I have removed more thistles than I care to count, they are notorious weeds and known to be the bane of farmer and gardener alike. However, when I googled ‘why are thistles so bad’ I struggled to find a solid answer other than they spread and grow quickly. Yes, completely dominating and outcompeting an area is very problematic but I expected to read far worse reasons such as producing chemicals that damage other plants or stop others from growing the next season which some other plants are known to do.
If they aren’t as bad as I thought, have I just learnt from my parents that thistles are weeds and so shouldn’t be kept around? Has this attitude just spread across our culture and now many of us spend a lot of time and effort removing these plants for no real benefit? After my shallow dive into thistle research it got me thinking about how we classify weeds and our relationship with certain plant, are thistles really that bad after all?
The thistle that is most common on our farm in the creeping thistle. It gets its name from the stealthy subterranean way it moves underground out from the main stem and sends out suckers that increase the plants small empire. It is this deep and wide root systems, that make creeping thistle such a nightmare to remove. Even if you think you have removed the root system with a folk the likelihood is that there is some part still left in the ground and that is resilient enough to grow into a new plant. If they are left to flower and then seed they will produce tens of thousands of seeds from one plant which catch the wind brilliantly and by mid-summer you will have a storm of fluffy seeds, which I think is quite beautiful really, flying across your land. They are just brilliantly adapted to live strong lives and reproduce well.
On the farm we have had quite a relaxed approach to our thistles. We left quite a few that took root around our beds to grow tall over spring and into the summer. Some got to be as tall as my stomach and did seem to take over the areas they were in, so we did cut them down when they started to seed. When we did start to take the thistles down I did have some reservations because I personally think they are pretty impressive with their bright purple flowers and spiny dominating presence but it was the amount of life that was around them that made me question why we were removing them.
Wildlife seems to flock to wherever the spiny devils seem to grow. They are the high-rise apartment building of an English grassland habitat. Standing tall within our meadow they attract an unbelievable number of insects. 20 different species of butterfly and moth use thistle for food while also using the spines to protect their egg, not to mention that bees, hoverflies, and other pollinators can’t get enough of the stuff. I also love watching ants farm the aphids that have latched onto the stems. Spiders use the spines of the thistle as a form of natural scaffolding which is perfect for them because they are protected from grazers destroying their beautiful webs and there will plenty of food for them to find.
After learning a bit more about thistles I have come to my own conclusion that it is so important to question why we classify some plants as weeds and other not. We are within a great mass extinction after all and yours and my action influence on halting human decimation of all other species. By changing your attitude towards certain plants and asking why you think of them as weeds and just letting more grow is such a simple, easy and effective way to bring about an enormous amount of life into in garden or farm.