The Order of the Thistle is most usually stated to have been established as late as the year 1500; but it is to be remembered, as Dr. G. Johnston shews, that the plant was "peculiarly the badge of the clan Stewart;" and it is not, therefore, unreasonable to suppose that its dedication to a regal and national order might be connected with the acces-sion of that family to the throne of Scotland. James V. was the first Scottish king who stamped it on his coins; and James VI. adopted its well-known and appropriate motto, "nemo me impune lacessit."* This motto, indeed, speaks with some force to all who seek to elucidate the subject; for if, wearied with the doubts and disputes which are so antagonistic to human comfort and happiness, we turn from these "vext questions," and inquire what plant the Scottish thistle really is, we find ourselves still further from the point than in the inquiry respecting the use as an emblem, and the establishment of the order. Here again I will give the opinions quoted by Dr. G. Johnston, † though I confess that my sympathies, as well as my convictions, go rather with those who consider that it is the thistle, par excellence, and not any one particular species, which is the real national emblem; including under this head the tribes of carduus and cnicus, each of which is classed by the Scottish peasant under the generic name of thristle.
And in truth, it is lamentable to think that even the grave of Burns should have remained undecorated in consequence of the correct thistle which was to be placed there being so long under dispute among his admirers. In this instance, however, the palm and the place of honour were finally awarded to the cotton-thistle (Onopordum acanthus), which is also the thistle borne, in their processions, by the Freemasons of Scotland; having, as Dr. G. Johnston suggests, obtained this dignity in virtue of its stately and vigorous growth. Yet there is a strong party who assert that the drooping character of the musk-thistle ((7. nutans) distinguishes it, undeniably, as the genuine Scotch thistle; while another, amongst whom Dr. G. Johnston would appear to take his stand, contends for the rights of the milk-thistle (C. marianus), to the prickly stings of which some cynical old bachelor of former days has attached the name of "maiden's lips." The author, however, of that pleasant little volume, "The Wild Flowers of the Year," alludes to the circumstance, that although this plant is so very frequent in England, it is extremely rare in Scotland; nay, that "almost the only spot of that country" in which it grows, is, on the rocky cliffs in the vicinity of Dumbarton Castle, where tradition declares it to have been planted by the hands of Queen Mary of Scotland. Yet only so much further south as in Berwickshire, Dr. G. Johnston and Mr. Goldie found, that wherever the soil was turned up to a depth of three or four feet, quantities of this plant sprang up.
A similar objection may be made to the cotton-thistle (Onopor-dum acanthus), as Professor Balfour states that it is "a doubtful native of Scotland, though not un-frequent in England".
* See Dr. Johnston's "Botany of the Eastern Borders." † Op. Cit.
One party, on what grounds I know not, has determined the Scotch to be the so-called melancholy-thistle (Cnicus heterophyllus - Carduus hete-rophyllus of the "E. Bot."), which takes its name from the sombre hue of its leaves and blossoms; but as it is not armed with the spines which distinguish the rest of the family, it would appear to have no claim - so far as prickly defence is concerned - to the thistle motto, "Ce que Dieu garde, est bien garde;" so that the decision of its adherents would place the Scotch in the unenviable, and inapplicable position of the poet Sou they, where, in one of his comico-pathetic moments, he exclaims: "The thistle might be my emblem, though I shall never assume its motto, because asses mumble me with impunity, and to their own contentment,"
And thus, leaving my readers to settle the question in dispute "As each shall list," I proceed to inquire into the various uses to which the thistle has been applied, classing together for the purpose the several and distinct families of Carduus, Cnicus, Onopordum, and Carlina, which are commonly known by the general English name of thistles.
The milk-thistle is the Carduus marianus. It is said to have derived its English, as well as its botanical, name from the Virgin Mary. Evelyn notices it as an esculent vegetable; and the same may be said of the footstalks of nearly all the species, or even the genera, which might with advantage be blanched, or, as Loudon suggests, treated like cardoons; although the very exhausting nature of a crop of plants, rejoicing in such vigorous and deep-searching roots, would forbid their extensive cultivation. In ancient Rome and Carthage, as well as in Corduba, the high price of a particular thistle is a subject of historical remark; and this one is supposed to be the G. lactucarum of Zuinger, and apparently the same as our C. marianus. The receptacle of the great burr-thistle, (Cnicus lanceolatus), a plant which is familiarly known from its magnificent size, from the practice of using its dried flowers for the purpose of curdling milk, and from the employment of its cockade-like involucrum by little children in their games, is, as Dr. G. Johnston observes, dressed like artichoke bottoms.
The G. nutans and Arabicus, the musk and Arabian thistles, and, amongst the Portuguese, the Cardo do coalho, Cardoon thistle (Cynara cardunculus), are also used in the same manner at table; and the tender stalks of the marsh-thistle (Cnicus palustris) as well as those of some other species, are peeled and eaten raw by children; or, as recommended by Evelyn, are boiled, or baked in a pie. The latter custom must certainly have originated in Cornwall - the very land of pies - where even parsley, which is usually regarded as a mere seasoning herb, to be used sparingly, does not escape that fate; the dread of which is said, by the old proverb, not only to ensure the holiness of all stay-at-home Cornishmen, but to keep the Evil Being from visiting that county, lest he should be put into a pie! Evelyn states that in his time the milk-thistle was commonly sold in the markets as a proper diet for nurses. The Siberians use the Cnicus cernuus as a table vegetable, and the boiled leaves of the pale-flowered-thistle (C. oleraceus) are a favourite dish among the Russians. But it is as a fodder for cattle that the thistle is most valued.
Before turnips took their place in the ordinary routine of agriculture, the thistle was an important article in the economy of the Scottish hill-side farmer; and Dr. G. Johnston tells us that, "the dues or customs on thistles, sold at St. Boswell's fair, are still unrepealed, so that if any were to be carried to it for sale, the customary rate (fee) might still be demanded." Moreover, the Vicar of Norham, at one period, actually found it worth his while to assert his right to the tythe of the thistles of his parishioners; and it has been shewn that few, if any, of our ordinary fodder plants, afford so much nourishment, in the same bulk, as the thistle; which is eagerly eaten both by horses and cows, if the plant be but slightly crushed or pounded. Indeed, it may be observed that the milk-thistle is eaten by cows without any preparation, and, apparently with as much satisfaction, as it is by the school-boy's pet rabbit.