Tuesday, May 28, 2024
HomeNewsNotes from the Sticks: A thistle-stop tour

Notes from the Sticks: A thistle-stop tour


THERE are loads of thistles round here but until I started looking closely at them I didn’t realise there were many different types. It is not always easy to identify them from books because they tend to concentrate on the flowers, which are pretty similar. It is the leaves which vary. These are the four main varieties I have found.

First is the creeping thistle (Cirsium arvense), the name of which refers to the roots rather than the foliage. The leaves are glossy with prickles all along the sides. It’s a perennial which can be a bit of a pest in gardens.

The next is the spear thistle (Cirsium vulgare), which has leaves with fearsome spikes sticking out from the front and sides and upwards.

The flower is commonly thought to be the model for the Scottish thistle.

The next is the thistliest thistle you will ever see, with prickles all over. This is the welted thistle (Carduus crispus).


Finally one with yellow flowers, the prickly sow-thistle (Sonchus asper).

The distinguishing feature of this plant is the way the base of the leaf curls almost all the way round the stem.

All these species are valuable food plants for insects, but perhaps more surprisingly they are recommended by many as food for us too. Stems, leaves and roots may be eaten and they are said to be bursting with vitamins and other things that are good for you. YouTube is full of videos by foragers, many of them American.

Here is an example:

(Incidentally, I wonder who was the first to look at one of these heavily armoured plants and think, ‘Yum, that looks good enough to eat.’)

There are plenty of recipes for cooking them too. Here is an example: 


  • 5 prickly sow-thistle tips per person
  • knobs of butter


1.    Put the sow-thistle tips into a steamer and steam for about one minute.

2.    Place on plate and serve with a nice creamy salted butter.

Even I could manage that.  


Sheep of the week

These are Castlemilk Moorit sheep. (‘Moorit’ describes the red-brown colour of certain sheep fleeces – apparently it is is an old Icelandic word that means ‘as red as the moors’, in which case Icelandic must be a very concise language.)

During the early years of the twentieth century Sir Jock Buchanan-Jardine (1900-1969) began a breeding programme on his Castlemilk Estate in Dumfriesshire, with the aim of developing a breed to beautify his parkland and provide fine, kemp-free (without stiff, brittle fibres which can be itchy) moorit-coloured wool.

He crossed Manx Loaghtan, which I wrote about here

with moorit Shetland (one of many colours the breed comes in)

and mouflon, a wild sheep native to the Caspian region from eastern Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Iran which is thought to be the ancestor of all domestic sheep.

After Sir John’s death in 1969, for some inexplicable reason most of the sheep were slaughtered but six ewes and a ram were bought by Joe Henson (1932-2015), the founder of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. All today’s Castlemilk Moorits are descended from these few sheep. There are thought to be 1,500 in Britain with flocks in Belgium and the Netherlands.

They are large and uniformly brown though the shade may vary from light to dark. Both ewes and rams have horns and they have mouflon-type face markings. They are particularly agile and are used for grazing rough ground to produce meat and wool.

Here is a video (there are not many to choose from):

You can see more pictures on the Castlemilk Moorit Sheep Society website.



A FEW days ago I found this terrific caterpillar on a dwarf buddleia I have in a pot. It is about an inch and a half long.

It was easy to identify as a mullein moth (Cucullia verbasci) larva, which feeds on buddleia and verbascum or mullein. Normally when you find one caterpillar there are lots of them, but this one appears to be on its own. It’s also unusual in that it doesn’t hide under the leaves but stays in the open – I presume its colouring suggests to predators that that it tastes vile. When it pupates it may stay underground for as long as five years, and since it is systematically working its way through the flower buds of the buddleia I am hoping this will happen before it polishes off the lot.

The adult moth is a much less exotic specimen, flying at night from April to June, and spending the day disguised as a leaf or piece of bark, as you can see in these pictures. 


Wheels of the week


THIS is a 1976 Triumph Bonneville T140, designed and built by Triumph Engineering at Meriden near Coventry from 1973 until 1983 when the company, by then a co-operative called Triumph Motorcycles (Meriden) Limited, went bankrupt in the face of competition from the Japanese Honda and Kawasaki brands and dwindling sales in the US.

Triumph Motorcycles was acquired by businessman John Bloor, who licensed Les Harris to manufacture the T140 Bonneville in Newton Abbot. These continuation bikes are known as the ‘Devon Bonnevilles’. Production ended in 1988.


This cactus (Gymnocalycium horstii) came into flower yesterday. The picture is not very good as I took it through the greenhouse glass, the plant being heavy to move and I didn’t want to damage the blooms. The glory lasted just a few hours – by the evening the flowers were finished.


DON’T forget that reader Kathy Nel (‘linuslimmy’) is collating anecdotal evidence about bird and insect numbers, either increases or decreases (or even static). Send your comments and observations to this address: If you leave a comment below the line, we need a geographical location to be able to use it.


Notes from the Sticks is going on holiday. I hope to be back in a few weeks. In the meantime we will be repeating some of my favourite columns.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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