Thistles are Florida's good guys

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Have you noticed the bright purple flowers along the sides of the roads in the last few weeks?

While they might look like a weed, they are very important to many bees and butterflies and others. While they seem to be a spiny weed, these wildflowers provide nectar for bees and butterflies such as swallowtails and others. When you realize their importance as a larval host plant, they look a lot prettier.

Our landscapes, roadsides, gardens all have plants and weeds. Most of the time the gardener is trying to get rid of the weeds. One thought is that the difference between a plant and a weed is whether or not it has a purpose or importance for humans.

Les Harrison, UF/IFAS points out in a recent article that plants are useful in a variety of ways. They can be food. they can be ornamentals or they may have some medicinal purpose.

Weeds are just part of the environment with some dubious and unquantifiable value in contemporary society. Native thistles are one such plant, writes Harrison.

History tells us that thistles were used as folk medicine. Baldness, treatment for plaque, vertigo and headaches, all were believed to be cured using the thistle.

If you look at the flag of Scotland, you will notice a thistle. There are few symbols as Scottish as the thistle. Thistle is considered the “Flower of Scotland,” and became the national symbol after the battle of Cargs. When a surprise attack on a Highland clan by a Danish invader was foiled because he stepped on a thistle and cried out, the thistle became the symbol of strength and tenacity in adversity for the Scottish people.

The leaves, stems, and root of a Scottish thistle may all be used for medicinal purposes. The roots generally help respiratory conditions. The flowering tops are made into a tea and may be used for a heart tonic. The florets and stalks were often used as food.

The thistle’s uses for wildlife include food for hummingbirds, butterflies, bees and moths. Many other species use their parts for food. The large flowers and abundant nectar are very attractive to many species of butterflies, hummingbirds, bees and moths. Many other species will also use other plant parts for food, including the leaves, stems, roots, flower heads and seeds. Seeds are attractive to seed-eating birds such as the American goldfinch. Native Americans used a paste of the roots for treating wounds, boils, and piles, and used an infusion of the root for treating a stomach ache. Native Americans also used the thistledown (or pappus) from the seeds to fletch the tail end of blow darts.

Purple thistle occurs naturally in pinelands and prairies and is seen along the unmowed roadsides. While it typically blooms in summer and fall, it may bloom all year.

There are seven species of thistle in Florida which include tall thistle, LeConte’s thistle, swamp thistle, Nuttall’s thistle, purple or yellow thistle, bull thistle, Virginia thistle, and possibly others. Some sources say at least nine species are in Florida; however, some are very rare to find.

Purple thistle prefer dry sites. However, you can find some in wet, boggy areas.

Florida thistles are biennials except for the Lecontes thistle, which is perennial. Biennial plants grow from seed the first year and produce seeds the second year.

When a biennial produces flowers, it can produce as many as 4,000 seeds - per plant. Seeds, which are tiny, are dispersed by the wind.

Thistles’ native range is throughout the entire state of Florida. If you are interested in seeing where natural populations of purple thistle have been vouchered, visit florida.plantatlas.usf.edu.

The Florida Wildflower Foundation has suggestions if you are interested in planting thistles in your garden. Purple thistle flowers are long-lived, and en masse, they make for a beautiful display of pinkish-violet hues. After flowering, the plants retain interest by forming cottony white seed heads that shatter to the wind. However, the plant’s prolific amount of seeds coupled with its tendency to spread via underground suckers, makes it very difficult to control in a landscape.

Purple thistle plants are occasionally available at nurseries that specialize in native plants. Visit plantrealflorida.org to find a nursery near you.

The Florida Native Plant Society is actively seeking members. Your membership supports the preservation and restoration of wildlife habitats and biological diversity through the conservation of native plants. It also funds awards for leaders in native plant education, preservation and research. You can join online at www.fnps.org/join.

Thanks to Bill Boothe for the poster for this article. Research for the article from Florida Wildflower Foundation, Florida Native Plant Society, and University of Florida Plant Atlas.

Sandra Chafin works at the St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve.

This article originally appeared on The Star: Thistles are Florida's good guys

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