Thursday, February 19, 2015

Thistles and goats, or rams, or sheep

It's time for some summertime color to offset the bleak nature of the landscape now --- on February days (and nights) when the temperature is hovering near zero or below.

These are pasture thistles (Cirsium discolor), photographed at Pin Oak Marsh and native to tall grass prairies, although sometimes confused with weedier and peskier varieties not native to the Americas and generally deplored as pests by farmers. 

Pasture thistles, like most thistle varieties, are biennial --- appearing the first year as a rosette of modest (but prickly) leaves, then bolting upward during the second year to bloom. Then they die. Although they can be mildly aggressive in disturbed ground, in general pasture thistles are our friends --- it's even possible to pluck and boil young leaves and stems and serve them up as greens.

Bees and butterflies love them. I found this swallowtail at lunch last summer on the prairie remnant along Highway 65 between Derby and Humeston.

Pasture thistles are quite similar to non-native and more aggressive bull thistles (Cirsium vulgare), but it's fairly easy to tell the difference by looking at the bracts underneath the flower heads. Spines are cupped upward on pasture thistle bracts, resulting in a patterned smooth appearance, but are coarser and spike outward aggressively on bull thistle bracts, all the better to snag the unwary. Bull thistle stems are spiny, too; pasture thistle stems are not.

The thistle is an ancient symbol of Scotland and although the Scots debate now and then about the variety of their emblem, most likely it was Cirsium vulgare --- the earliest to reach Scotland. Besides, its prickly bracts remind me of some of my prickly Scots-Irish Presbyterian forbears.

What we call Canada thistles (although they have nothing to do with Canada) --- Cirsium arvense, another import --- are the most likely to give farmers fits since unlike either pasture or bull thistles, they spread via rhizomes as well as by seed and are highly aggressive.


And in case those new year resolutions made on Jan. 1 aren't going so well, today's an opportunity for redemption --- the Chinese, or lunar, new year (in Vietnam, Tet).

It's time to make new resolutions and start again.

It's now officially the year of the ram, or the goat, or the sheep. Take you pick. The Chinese symbol for all three are the same --- although sheep because of their mild disposition and somewhat limited intelligence generally are considered inauspicious. Remember to wear red and wish everyone you meet, "Chúc mừng năm mới!"

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