Born to be spiny: Silybum marianum (milk thistle) and Dipsacus fullonum (teazel)

This picture of the flowering heads of Silybum marianum was taken  on 25th May , but I’ve been saving it for this post about spiky plants. It’s so over-the-top pointy that I can’t see it without thinking of the imagery of hard rock bands, and the Steppenwolf song:

Get your motor running

Head out on the highway

Looking for adventure

and whatever comes our way….

I like smoke and lightning

Heavy metal thunder (Born to be wild, 1968)

The  song describes almost perfectly my trips out to photograph plants: few people know that the title is completely botanical and that the original version of the lyrics had ‘wild flowers’ in place of ‘adventure’, and the thunder referred to the rattle of the vasculum in the car boot…..*


I quote this because it is supposed to be the first use of the phrase ‘heavy metal’ in a song (William Burroughs had already created the character the Heavy Metal Kid in The naked lunch) .  Also because the spines in both the plants in  today’s post look quite aggressive, though in fact I think they are both purely defensive.

Both plants in today’s post are biennials,  growing  a basal rosette of leaves in their first year, then shooting up a spiky stem topped off by these flowers with attitude, which seem to snarl ‘what are you looking at?’  It seems to me that these are all superb adaptations to life in the time of grasses: as the Earth’s climate became cooler and drier in the last 50 million years, grasses evolved and spread rapidly in the expanding deserts and steppes which were hostile to trees and tropical plants. As grasses spread, so mammals evolved which adopted grazing as a habit, including the ungulates. Grasses are well adapted to this because they regrow after grazing (like a mown lawn), and other plants developed ways of avoiding being eaten: ground-level leaf rosettes, and spiky shoots which deter hungry deer and goats – animals which incidentally help both these sorts of plants by eating all the competition instead.

The marianum bit of the name is associated with the milk in milk thistle, coming from the white veins in the leaves: the  legend was that these came  from splashes of milk from Mary’s breast as she fed the infant Jesus*.  Hence the plant was held to increase the flow of milk in nursing mothers.  It was also thought to be useful medically, especially for liver problems, and these perhaps explain why the plant spread from its origin in the middle east (Iran), as it was systematically cultivated in monastery gardens. While the  benefits are not clinically proven, extracts are used in the energy drink Rockstar69.  Ironically this drink is not advised for pregnant women or nursing mothers.

The teazel (Dipsacus fullonum) will be very familiar to more northern born-to-be-wild ones too – I’m featuring it today because this weekend would have seen my mother’s 99th birthday, and I remember her hanging bunches of teazels in the garage to use in her wonderful dried flower arrangements.  The flowers are unique in that they start flowering in the middle, and a wave of bloom spreads from the equator to both poles. There are amazing high-magnification photos here.

The leaves clasp the stems and collect water in their axils (the Dips- bit of the name means ‘thirst’: cf. dipsomaniac).  This feature deters bugs from climbing, and bugs drowned in these watery traps seem to aid setting of seed, so the teazel may be partly carnivorous.

In West Wales we were used to the history of teazels having  been collected from the many stream-sides for use in the woollen mills: the many soft spines of the flower heads were perfect for raising the nap on woollen fabrics, so making them ‘woollier’.   I’ve seen them packed in a frame on the machine called a ‘teazel raising gig’ at the wonderful  National Wool Museum at Drefach Felindre (meaning’ little mill town’ – and it is).

*If you believe this, you’ll believe anything.

In music I’m exploring the idea that the leather-and-spikes posture of heavy rock is just that: a posture.  In fact though jazz and metal have seemed mutually exclusive categories there are plenty of meeting points. Flirtings maybe, not like the 80s heyday of jazz-rock fusion, but as fun as most flirting can be.  Names to conjure with could be Billy Cobham, Tony Williams and Lifetime, and of course Hendrix himself, who jammed with Miles Davis and John McLaughlin. I’m going to suggest a listen to guitarist  Vernon Reid (formerly with Living Colour) playing a Thelonious Monk tune, Brilliant corners. First Monk’s original:

Now Vernon Reid with Masque:

And finally to wind down here are the two Mexican ex-metal guitarists Rodrigo and Gabriela with Alex Skolnick (guitarist with rock band Testament and dabbler in jazz with his trio) live at the Trianon, Paris.  Can’t genre-bending be fun?



Filed under Dipsacus, Silybum

11 responses to “Born to be spiny: Silybum marianum (milk thistle) and Dipsacus fullonum (teazel)

  1. I’m glad you mentioned Drefach Felindre. It’s a pity there isn’t a photo of the teasels on the museum’s website because it seems such a good use for the spiky dried heads we’re seeing at this time of year. I remember them all lined up in a frame and I took a photo of the teazel raising gig, in film days. I must try to find it!

  2. What a wonderful post. I am reeling from it (that may also be the effect of headache meds, but truly, so many surprises here). Genre blending is my favorite thing–in music, in literature, in visual arts. That last group: I love them! Even more than Monk and Reid. When I feel better I’ll go back to Youtube and spend some time listening to more of their work. We have teasels here, but I don’t think I’ve seen milk thistles–unless I mistook them for other kinds of thistles and didn’t look closely (which is very possible). Thanks for the original lyrics to Born to be Wild. That could also be the sub-title of your journal.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment, even through a painkiller haze – hope you’re over it now. It wasn’t the subtitle – but it’ll be there in the back of my mind now.

  3. That silybum marianum is some plant, so very outworld-ly. I expect it to shoot spores of deadly spores of some sort.
    I guess Mom was right. I did spend too much time reading SciFi comic books.

    • It does provoke those kinds of reaction. I’m thinking of collecting some dried heads to carry with me next time I might have to go down some dark city street at night….

  4. Ceridwen

    Great stuff!

    The teasel carders can be seen here
    and here

    Also, if you google cheese+thistle you will find that thistles (more strictly cardoons) can, and are, used to make cheese in Spain and elsewhere -useful for the kosher option. The juices act as a coagulant like rennet.

    • Thanks for the useful links with lots of info about the use of teazels in woollen mills, especially all the photos of the Museum in Drefach Felindre – saves us looking through years of snaps. Glad you enjoyed the post – it was fun to do.

  5. And of course on a more flippant note, the milk thistel has one of my favourite Latin names. It’s common name should really be dumb-arse Mary! 😀 There is another even funnier name in the lilium genus, but it’s a bit rude… The active ingredient of the plant as a liver tonic is not watersoluble and therefore, simply drinking an infusion or eating the leaves (yes they are edible as are the stalks and flowerheads once you remove the spines) does not not work. An extract is widely prescribed by conventional doctors in Germany.

  6. Pingback: Curds at home and away: Galium verum – Lady’s bedstraw, and thistle cheese | an entangled bank

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