Monday, February 7, 2011


I hope I look this good after I've been dead for almost a year.

This is one of last summer's carline thistles Carlina vulgaris, growing up at Salter's Gate near Tow Law in County Durham. I usually associate this plant with coastal habitats, but here it grows on the embankment of part of the old Stockton and Darlington railway line that carried coal from the collieries of Crook to the ironworks furnaces at Consett.

I'm amazed that the flower head is so well preserved, taking into account that it would have been buried under a metre of snow for several weeks in January. Those grey, spiny bracts continue to open and close over the central disk of dead flowers, depending on the weather - on wet days they close. I have a copy of Flowers and Flower Lore, written by the Rev. Hilderic Friend and published in 1886, that mentions that continental carline thistle seed heads were once nailed above the door of houses as indicators of the state of the weather, much as people have used seaweed or the opening and closing of pine cones for the same purpose, with the thistle closing at the approach of humid weather preceding a downpour.

The author also gives an interesting derivation of the Latin generic name, Carlina, which is supposedly a Latinised version of Charlemagne. "The story goes", he writes," that when the Emperor was on one occasion engaged in a  war, a pestilence broke out amongst his army, which carried off a large number of his men. This so troubled Charlemagne that he prayed to God for help, and in answer to his prayers an angel appeared and shot with a cross-bow, telling the Emperor to mark the spot where the arrow fell. The plant which the arrow indicated [carline thistle] would, the angel said, prove the best of antidotes, and stay the raging of the plague."

Meanwhile, in my 1934 copy of Wild Flowers in Literature (I seem to have accumulated a lot of obscure plant-related books) author Vernon Rendall mentions that carline thistle acquired its name from the Scottish word for a witch - a carlin - as in Robert Burns poem Tam O'Shanter:

As Tammie glowr'd, amaz'd, and curious,
   The mirth and fun grew fast and furious;
The Piper loud and louder blew,
   The dancers quick and quicker flew,
The reel'd, they set, they cross'd, they cleekit,
   Till ilka carlin swat and reekit,
And coost her duddies to the wark,
   And linkit at it in her sark!

So there you have it .... is it named after an Emperor or a witch? Either way, it's a memorable plant - especially if you happen to sit on one when you're having a picnic...


  1. Great post, that first sentence really grabbed my attention. I like the Charlemagne story, what an unusual explanation for a name. I learned something new today, thank you.

  2. The poem is hilarious since I can only guess at the meanings of many of the scottish words! Wonderfully interesting post!

  3. Interesting again Phil. Always fascinating how plants get their names; and I certainly can vouch for your last statement lol

  4. Really interesting Phil. I always learn something reading your blog. Cheers, seumus

  5. Being married to a Scot who loves the work of Robert Burns I go with the witch theory. I have only encountered this plant on Holy Island.

  6. Hi Masha, there are some wonderful myths and legends associated with wild flowers aren't there?

  7. Hi lotusleaf, there's a 'translated' version at

  8. Hi Keith, when the spines are old and brittle the tips tend to break off in your skin - even more painful!

  9. Greetings Seumus - and thanks!

  10. Hi Nigel, the only other place I know it from is Hawthorn Hive on the Durham coast