ORRIN MORRIS: Butterflies, goldfinches depend on the bull thistle for food and shelter

BULL THISTLE Cirsium vulgare

BULL THISTLE Cirsium vulgare

Some of my most endearing memories are of my parents helping me discover the natural world. I was awed by their wisdom about the intricate complexity of the bull thistle, the white sap of the milkweed, the fragrance of sweet clover and how the sunflower turned as it followed the sun across the hot Nebraska sky.

The Scripture considered here reminds me of those memories. “One generation shall praise Thy works to another, And shall declare Thy mighty acts.” (Psalm 145:4)

Thistles are in the composite family because their blossom head is a mass of slender tubular florets. The only way to see the delicate details is to split the head open and view them through a magnifying glass.

Most thistles are spiny with prickly leaves and thorny stems, especially near the bloom heads. The pinkish-lavender (and occasionally yellow) bloom heads are dome-shaped. The stickers around the head discourage ants from getting to the unusually sweet nectar and prevent grazing animals from eating them.

The young stems can be pealed and cooked or eaten raw. The roots, when scraped and washed, are said to be sweet.


Cirsium vulgare

Bull thistle looks like the old-time shaving brush my dad would use.

Most people regard all thistles as pests, but the painted lady butterfly obviously likes them. She feeds and lays eggs on the plant. Further, goldfinches are frequent visitors for nectar and seeds, and they use the fluffy white seed-bearers for nesting material.

Bull thistles bloom from June through September and often stand 3 feet tall. The leaves of this thistle have a very uniform pattern, as illustrated. The leaves of the other thistles in this area, such as nodding thistle, field thistle and Canada thistle, are irregularly shaped. The leaves on all these are thorny and dissected, but the bull thistle leaves have a distinct pattern.

Finally, the flower head has a unique feature that helps the observer differentiate the bull thistle from the field thistle. Below the lavender-pink florets is a green vase-shaped structure called an involucre. It is a set of bracts tightly surrounding the base of the flower-head.

On the field thistle the tips of the bracts have sharp but short spines; however, the tips of the bracts on the bull thistle are much longer, reaching as wide as the colorful florets. The many spines along the stem are long and sharp, too.

The best lesson I learned from my parents was that God made all of this for us to enjoy because He loves us. May you see His love in the wildflowers and be a parent figure to a child by helping him or her discover the many unique wonders of the natural world.

Orrin Morris is a retired Baptist minister, local artist and art teacher. To purchase a two-volume set of books featuring his wildflower columns, visit the Nature Seen Gallery & Frame Shop, 914 Center St. in Olde Town Conyers, or call 770-929-3697 or text 404-824-3697. Email him at odmsketchingpad@yahoo.com.