Nov 5, 2011

Thistles While You Walk

Our latest adventure with More Nature Study with the Outdoor Hour Challenge brought us in close contact with those beautiful-to-look-at/dangerous-to-touch wildflowers called thistles. Some would say calling them wildflowers is a stretch because of their invasive behavior, but more on that later.
                                             Late afternoon at  Sharp's Waterford Farm.

      We live on the edge of the countryside, ever encroached upon by development, but farmland is still in our backyard. On the day we took on the thistle challenge we were finishing a farm field trip that included a very interesting and fun lesson about life as the Pilgrims knew it. Thankfully this farm, in the same family for over a century, had applied for preservation status. Driving away over the upper pastures, we envied the unbroken view to the horizon across cow and horse pastures and acres of pick-your-own pumpkins ("sugar pumpkins, the best for pies"). 
     Mei's riding experience had taught her how dangerous those flat pizza-sized sprouting thistle rosettes could be to her horse. We winced at the thought of the pain or worse it could inflict on the tender underside of a horse' hoof. Knowing this pasture would be a preferred habitat, we very quickly spotted evidence of our subject just inside the (electrified) fence. Jumping out of the car on a narrow lane to snap its pic, I found a large rosette of spiny growth on my side just at my feet. I also spied a couple of teasel plants, one of which I helped myself too. I'll leave that for another post...
Probably Canadian Thistle. Bull leaves are hairy.
    Earlier that day we had used the notes from the Handbook of Nature Study to learn about the two main thistles and how to identify the differences. The Bull or Common Thistle has the larger head and is annual, growing in single clumps here and there. While it may look the fiercer, it turns out that the delicately branched, smaller bloomed and less-spiny Canada Thistle is a wolf in sheep's clothing because of its pernicious habit of propagating itself by underground runners. Snip off the main plant and the off-shoots just become more vigorous! From the Maryland Invasive Species newsletter I found this quote:
  • "Canada thistle is considered a noxious weed throughout the U.S, with millions of dollars spent annually on its control. Left uncontrolled, it can reduce yields of row crops by as much as 90 percent.
    Well, if that didn't get your attention, I give up!
        Of course God doesn't make anything without a reason.  The numerous species of butterflies, bees, and birds that depend on them for food attest to this. And just watching a colorful swallowtail or goldfinch clinging to the flower is a balm to our spirits.I was encouraged by some of this quote:
    A Painted Lady. Lay some eggs!
    • "Red Admirals, viceroys and painted lady butterflies lay eggs on Canada thistle, and the subsequent larvae feed on the leaves and stems. However, only the painted lady butterfly builds up populations high enough to eliminate an infestation. This butterfly is generally found in southern states and will migrate north only once every 8 to 11 years."
    Here's some nice info and a coloring page for kids on Painted Lady butterflies at Enchanted
         By the way, I was relieved to read that Niger thistle, the type sold for feeding goldfinches, is a sterilized seed and not a threat. (Though I'm not convinced because I find SOMETHING coming up under those feeders every year!)
      Spreading seeds. A no-no!
          As we walked the dog to our "thistle sanctuary," an unmown field near a state park, I challenged Mei to find our plants. I was pleased that she could pick out thistles from a distance even though by now the brown, dried stalks with their bedraggled fluffy heads looked very different from the purple-plumed, lanced defenders of the field of a month ago. But because of their post-season state, we weren't sure if we were finding Bulls or Canadians. We snipped a few specimens and headed home.

      Bull Thistle gone to seed
      Bull Thistle spent flower head
      A Bull Thistle flower that was caught by frost.
           Across the road was another field and I had to take a look. Sure enough, thistles, only these had a decidedly delicate structure with many branches and numerous small, fluff heads. These then were the infamous Canadian thistle. The prior were the Bulls.

                                A row of Canadian Thistles going to seed. 
                          Pretty little flowers a month ago.

      Canada Thistle seedhead
      You can see how fragile the Canadian Thistle appears to be compared with the Bull/Common. Looks are deceiving, aren't they?
      We then investigated the bed by the road that had been invaded last year. Plants were popping up everywhere one next to another through their insidious under-ground roots. And  from what we know now, it's going to take a lot more than hand-pulling to eradicate the Invaders!

                                            Garden pests
      Chow down, Bambi!
       The one bright spot was discovering that, for all the damage our local deer do to our landscaping, they may be developing a taste for thistles....!

      Hope you learned a little. Thanks to The Outdoor Hour Challenge, we learned a lot including some things we might rather NOT have learned! Ignorance can be bliss. 

      Hop over to the Outdoor Hour Blog Carnival to see what discoveries others have made.  And don't blow the thistles!



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