A Gardening Journal

Today in the Garden of a Lifetime: Scots' Thistle, Erupting into Summer

In its first year, a Scots thistle is a rosette of startling wooly-white foliage whose every edge is lined with needle-sharp spines that draw blood as swiftly as any phlebotomist.

 

The rosette bides its time through the Winter, keeping its core foliage intact despite the cold. In its second Spring, the rosette sends up an immense candelabra-like stem. This four-footer is just beginning to feel its oats.



 

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Fully-fledged—in just a month—it could be six- to nine-feet tall and six wide. No hardy plant supplies as much prickly architectural drama.

 

If the appeal of Onopordum acanthium were only about sheer size and unrelenting self-protection, this biennial would be merely a stunt. Instead, the arc of its brief lifespan combines with the details along the way to create a narrative that is heroic as well as poignant.

 

As the candelabra develops, the plot remains on the upswing. In this early stage, there’s just the central stem with enormous alternating leaves. Edged with lobes as pointed as maple leaves, but with the ever-present spines, the leaves are among the largest of any hardy plant. Only those of some of the “banana-leaf” magnolias are larger.

 

Every surface is thickly coated with hairs that reflect an arresting whiteness that makes this plant unmistakable even from a distance.

 

 

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Multi-branched stems will soon emerge from each leaf axil. Until then, it’s easy to savor the light that passes through each leaf, an elegantly contrasting celadon. The stems have four wide wings that are equally adept at reflecting white light as transmitting celadon. The edging of ferocious spines allows only the most careful exploration by finger; it would be a shame to sully the purity of this cold color scheme with drops of blood.

 

 

 

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Besides, the thistle itself will soon provide the only contrast needed: Buds emerge from the tip of every one of the fast-ramifying stems. Every bit as white-felted and spiny as the rest of the plant, they are only modestly evident until they open.

 

 

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We’ll revisit this astonishing species several times. The drama is just beginning.

 

 

Here's how to grow Scots' thistle.

 
 
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