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Trouble with Thistles

Throughout the year, different flora and fauna have their moment in the spotlight and then they fade again until next year. The primroses in spring, cow parsley in the early summer followed by the hogweed. There is an endless parade of blooms in the countryside, if you choose to look for them. The garden tends to be less subtle than the wild plants that are thriving, but the flowers are still there in all their glory. Now in mid-August, the spiky purple heads of thistles are visible everywhere. In the South East of Ireland, we have predominantly Creeping Thistle and Spear Thistle.

Spear Thistle

In the spring, I was set the mission to try and kill off as many of the emerging plants as possible. Because we endeavour to do things without chemicals where possible, our strategy was to take a sharpened spade and cut each plant off at its base. With the aerial parts gone, the thistles would be starved of food and so would die. There was one small issue with this plan: early on in the mission, I had decided that I did not like the job and so I avoided it. The immature part of me made excuses for not doing it. Areas that should have been tackled, were not.

Behind our house is hopelessly overrun.

Hell, am I regretting that now!

At this point the flowers are starting to fade and going to seed. The lightest breeze will pluck these seeds from the parent plant and transport them far and wide, to make new baby thistle plants next year. They are my current nemesis. Now, trying to tackle two and three foot high plants, I lament at my laziness in the spring… it would have been so much easier to tackle them then.

Of course, I have recruited a helper, but it is still a time consuming and nasty job. Even with gloves on we get the prickles in our hands. The work is slow. When the sun beats down on our backs, it is harder still.

In working closely with the thistles though, I have discovered that they are utterly irresistible to pollinators… in particular bumblebees. It’s not that I discounted them due to my own dislike of them, but I simply had not thought about the creatures they must attract. I noted hoverflies, honeybees, aphids, butterflies, ladybirds and even a goldfinch or two for good measure, but the sheer amount of different bumblebee species astounded me.

As a family, we try to work with nature where possible and I have always been mindful of showing Luke, now eleven years old, different species of invertebrates that we come across on the farm. As a result, working alongside him as we chopped down the thistles caused me some amusement: he seemed to constantly be chattering to the bees:

“Hello little bee friend...”

“No bee, don’t do that…”

“You’ll have to go find another flower I’m afraid…”

And finally:

“Ow, I think that bloody bee stung me! Silly bee! Will he die now Mom?”

In the case of that last one, no, a bee had not stung him, it was in fact one of the thistles getting its revenge… boy are those flower heads prickly! (Also, if you’re curious, bumblebees can sting multiple times without dying because their stinger is not barbed as a honeybee’s is.)

And so I am left emotionally ambivalent. Do I love them or loath them? Well, I’ve decided that I love them, but please, not in my fields. As a wild and native plant, they thrive and flourish in our temperate climate. They are also abundant and their usefulness to the smaller species of wildlife far outweighs their inconvenience to me.

For this year, they have won the battle. We will have a neighbour help us out and they will be mown and mulched (this will shred them, destroying the seeds I hope). However in spring, they will return, so I’ll have to make a note for myself in my diary to be more committed to tackling them early so that I don’t run into the same challenges that I have this year!


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