by Wayne Pauly from Dane County Parks ACTION Adult Conservation Team Newsletter (All folklore stories)
Prairie Thistle - Cirsium discolor
We add native prairie thistles to our restorations whenever possible because the flowers are great for butterflies and the seeds are important wildlife food. We also get lots of non-native thistles in our prairies, such as bull thistle, welted thistle, Canada thistle, and nodding thistle, and I try to be philosophical about these non-native visitors, which disappear as the prairie matures. These visitors are also great wildlife food and we have biological control because in healthy restorations goldfinches attack thistle seeds with gusto. Goldfinches are one of the latest breeders on the prairie and their nesting coincides with flowering of the thistle whose seeds make up a significant portion of the partially digested seeds fed to the young.
If we mow in an attempt to control the non-native thistles they resprout with suckers close to the ground and reseed the next year. I’ve always thought that finches prefer to feed high in the air where they can see predators and make a quick get-a-way and the seeds near the ground are left alone. Therefore fewer seeds survive if the thistles are left unmowed for the goldfinches.
Thistle is the heraldic emblem of Scotland. One legend claims the prickly thistles alerted the Scots to a night attack when Danish scouts removed their foot wear in an attempt to sneak up on the sleeping Scots. The thistle probably inspired the Scottish motto which embodies their spirit to brook no injury or offense without retaliation “Nemo me impune lacessit”