Wonderful world of plants

Thistles - prickly weed or precious resource?

By Charlene R. Johnson
For the Native Plant Society of New Mexico - Taos Chapter
Posted 11/8/17

Botanist Robert Sivinski is the author of the "New Mexico Thistle Identification Guide," created on behalf of the Native Plant Society of New Mexico and released in 2016.

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Wonderful world of plants

Thistles - prickly weed or precious resource?


Botanist Robert Sivinski is the author of the "New Mexico Thistle Identification Guide," created on behalf of the Native Plant Society of New Mexico and released in 2016. Although thistles may be revered in Scotland and in Lorraine, a region of northeastern France, not everyone who runs across them - literally or figuratively - appreciates their beauty and usefulness. Yet in Scotland, not only is it the national flower, it's the national emblem. There is even an "Order of the Thistle." During the reign of Alexander III in the 1200s, an army from Norway wished to invade. They sailed to the Coast of Largs at night and in order to surprise the sleeping Scots army, removed their socks and shoes for the sake of stealth. You can guess the rest of the story. Thanks to shrieking Norsemen, the Scots kept their freedom and their land and the prickly thistle became the emblem of the entire country.

While New Mexicans may not have won any battles thanks to the well-armed plant, we are host to 12 native species of thistles, a couple of which are federally or state endangered. We also have four exotic thistles which can become invasive and cause expletives to issue forth from the mouths of farmers and landowners. Know your thistle! Hence the creation of this guide, which can be found at the NPSNM.org website. This book is available as a free, downloadable pdf at: npsnm.org/plant-id-collection/

Another good resource for thistles is the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and their downloadable booklet, "Native Thistles: A Conservation Practitioner's Guide." This is also a free download at: xerces.org/native-thistle-guide/. This guide describes 62 native thistles around North America and also distinguishes between natives and introduced noxious thistles. They also sell a great book called, "Gardening for Butterflies."

All of these resources point out the importance of thistles for our pollinators, including the Monarch butterfly. The fact that exotic thistles are so often targeted for destruction has resulted in many native thistles being destroyed as well. Please note some of the differences, for instance in the pictures between the noxious bull thistle, Cirsium vulgare, and our native Wavyleaf Thistle, Cirsium undulatum, both common in Taos County. Also, notice the differences between the noxious musk thistle, Carduus nutans, with our native New Mexican thistle, Cirsium neomexicanum.

Not all thistles are purple. Our native Meadow Thistle, Cirsium scariosum, and Tracy's Thistle, Cirsium tracyi, are white, while Wright's Marsh Thistle, Cirsium wrightii, can show up in white or very pale pinkish-purple. The yellow Parry's thistle, Cirsium parryi, is the most common mountain thistle in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

The Sacramento Mountain thistle is an endangered species near Cloudcroft.

The prickles which give the plant its family name and its negative reputation, are on the leaf margins, the stem and the flat parts of the leaves. This is an effective adaptation to avoid being eaten by herbivores. This plant also has a long history of medicinal and food purposes. When beaten or crushed to destroy the prickles, the leaves of thistles have proven to be good fodder for livestock. The seeds also yield a good oil.

Most importantly however, some 200 species of hummingbirds, beetles, butterflies and native bees use thistles for food and nesting sites. Some insects like the Tephritid fly, Paracantha gentilis, lays its eggs only in thistle heads so that the young larvae have seeds to eat.

"A lot of effort and money is focused on killing weedy, non-native thistles and our native thistle species often suffer collateral damage simply because of mistaken identity. Hopefully, this thistle identification booklet will curtail some of this irrational thistle hatred and educate people about the beauty and ecological importance of our native plants," Sivinski said.

So, far from a nasty weed, many of the thistles you see are natives of our state and are worthy of protection.

Grant opportunity for teachers

From the initial keynote presentation to the final field trips, the September state conference of the Native Plant Society held in Taos was a tremendous success. The NPSNM Taos Chapter wants to pass along that success to our local teachers and students by offering two $250 grants for education relating to native plants in the fields of botany, biology or ecology.

Grants will be awarded to any school or teacher in Taos County according to the following guidelines, and keeping the mission of the Native Plant Society of NM in mind (see below).

Name of Project

Applicant information


Individual contact




Project or Education Materials to be funded

Timing of the use of funds

Number and school level of students impacted by the grant

Proposed Outcome (results you hope to achieve)

Benefits (benefits to students, school, community or other)

Need Statement

Overall Project Cost and percentage that grant money will cover



After the grant money is used, the Taos Chapter will request a short statement describing how the funds were used and photos (with photo releases if necessary) to be used in print media, social media and the Native Plant Society of NM website. Please send proposals in Word or pdf form to TaosNPS@gmail.com. Visit the Taos chapter website for more information: npsnm.org/about/chapters/taos/.

Deadline to submit is Dec. 31, 2017.

The Native Plant Society of New Mexico is a nonprofit organization that strives to educate the public about native plants by promoting knowledge of plant identification, ecology, and uses; fostering plant conservation and the preservation of natural habitats; supporting botanical research; and encouraging the appropriate use of native plants to conserve water, land and wildlife.

NPSNM - Taos Chapter, upcoming events

Meetings are on hold through the winter. If you would like to view recordings of past meetings, they are available on the Taos chapter website under Meeting Videos.

Johnson is an active member of the national Outdoor Writers' Association. She writes this column on behalf of the Native Plant Society of New Mexico - Taos Chapter.


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