thistle, popular name for many spiny and usually weedy plants, but especially applied to members of the family Asteraceae (aster family) that have spiny leaves and often showy heads of purple, rose, white, or yellow flowers followed by thistledown seeds (a favorite food of the goldfinch). The Scotch thistle (variously identified, but most often as Onopordum acanthium, now cultivated as an ornamental) is the badge of the Scottish Order of the Thistle and the national emblem of Scotland. The blessed thistle, or St.-Benedict's-thistle (Cnicus benedictus, the Carduus benedictus of Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing, iii:4) was at one time a heal-all and is still sometimes used medicinally. The common, or bull, thistle (Cirsium lanceolatum) and the pasture thistle (Cirsium odoratum) are attractive weeds not to be confused with the so-called Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense), naturalized from Europe. A few thistles are cultivated in gardens, e.g., the large-flowered globe thistles, species of the Old World genus Echinops. The Russian thistle is a tumbleweed. Thistle is classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Magnoliopsida, order Asterales, family Asteraceae.
This article is about the plant, for other uses see Thistle (disambiguation).

Thistle is the common name of a group of flowering plants characterised by leaves with sharp prickles on the margins, mostly in the plant family Asteraceae. Prickles often occur all over the plant - on surfaces such as those of the stem and flat parts of leaves. These are an adaptation to protect the plant against herbivorous animals, discouraging them from feeding on the plant. Typically, an involucre with a clasping shape of a cup or urn subtends each of a thistle's flowerheads.

The term thistle is sometimes taken to mean exactly those plants in the tribe Cynareae (synonym: Cardueae), especially the genera Carduus, Cirsium, and Onopordum. However, plants outside this tribe are sometimes called thistles, and if this is done thistles would form a polyphyletic group.


Genera in the Asteraceae with the word thistle often used in their common names include:

Plants in families other than Asteraceae which are sometimes called thistle include:


In the language of flowers, the thistle (like the burr) is an ancient Celtic symbol of nobility of character as well as of birth, for the wounding or provocation of a thistle yields punishment. For this reason the thistle is the symbol of the Order of the Thistle, a high chivalric order of Scotland.

Another story is that a Viking attacker stepped on one at night and cried out, so alerting the defenders of a Scottish castle. Whatever the justification, the national flower of Scotland is Scots Thistle, Onopordum acanthium. It is found in many Scottish symbols and as the name of several Scottish football clubs.

Place names

Carduus is the Latin term for a thistle (hence cardoon), and Cardonnacum is the Latin word for a place with thistles. This is believed to be the origin of name of the Burgundy village of Chardonnay, Saône-et-Loire, which in turn is thought to be the home of the famous Chardonnay grape variety.


Thistle flowers, along with bugle and brambles flowers, are favourite nectar sources of the Pearl-bordered Fritillary, Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary, High Brown Fritillary, and Dark Green Fritillary butterflies.

Literary references

Hugh MacDiarmid's poem A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle is an extended meditation on themes which are in part derived from the position of the plant in secular Scottish iconography.

Notes and references

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