The seeds of the thistle yield a most valuable oil, which is clear, fine, and bland; and though they are far from being a heavy substance, the quantity of the oil is nearly equal to three-fourths of their weight, when deprived of their winged down. This oil, which is admirably adapted for cooking purposes, is also excellent for burning; and the beautiful down, which wings these seeds, makes a most silky and beautiful paper, though, as will be readily supposed, the extreme difficulty of collecting a substance of so volatile a character, renders its employment for that purpose both rare and costly: floating away, as it does, on the passing breeze, almost as soon as it attains to maturity. It is however collected in considerable quantities by the industrious peasants of Sens-sur-Yonne, and probably of other districts in France. Nor is the tribe without its medicinal properties. The blessed-thistle (C. benedictus) most probably received its name from the very high esteem in which its medicinal properties were held, as observed by Boderus. The Cnicus helenoides, or elecampane-leaved-thistle, as it is now erroneously called - the original English name of melancholy-thistle having been appropriated to the G. heterophyllus - was formerly considered efficacious in disorders of the brain; while the beautiful Carlinas (which however are admitted amongst the thistles by custom, not by right,) are said to owe their name to the gratitude of a monarch whose army was cured of the plague by their use.
Oliver de Serres believes this monarch to have been the Emperor Charlemagne, and adds that the remedy was pointed out to him by an angel; but Linnaeus assigns the occurrence to the time of Charles V. and says that his army was so cured when quartered in Barbary.* The whole of the Carlinas are considered by the old writers to be "Alexipharmic," and also serviceable to "stimulate the solids, and dissolve the humours:" properties, the consideration and expounding of which, I, with the utmost deference, refer to those more learned in physic than myself - confining my own attention to the more intelligible fact, that the whole of the sub-order Cynarocephalce, to which they belong, are tonic and stimulant; and, as such, might probably be sometimes used with advantage.
* See Loudon's "Encyclopaedia of Plants," etc.
Allusion has already been made to the exhaustive nature of a crop of thistles. Of this the facts given by Mr. Curtis, form no inadequate illustration. In the month of April he planted a portion of the root of the common corn or way-thistle (Cnicus arvense), of about two inches long, in his garden. When examined in the following November this mutilated root-stock was found to have thrown out several underground shoots or stolones, some of which were eight feet long; while it had also produced leaves which shot up to a height of five feet. The plant was then dug up, and the root found to weigh four pounds, yet in the following spring, from forty to sixty young plants sprang up from the fragments of root-stock which had eluded a very careful search, when the plant had been, to all appearance, eradicated in the autumn. An instance, too, is on record of the roots of one of the same species descending to a depth of nineteen feet.* Nor are the tribe less persistent. In very early days a celebrated hill in Holy Isle obtained the name of Thristley Hill; and still existing entries of the expenses of the Holy Isle Priory, for the year 1344-5, as quoted by Dr. G. Johnston, shew, amongst other items, the expenditure of 2s. 8d. for "gloves for fourteen servants when they gathered the tythe corn." This protection might with advantage be used there even at the present day.
The roots of the corn-plants, on which man depends for the "staff" of life, reach, at the utmost, only a few inches below the surface, and the whole plant disappears or degenerates into use-lessness, if unfostered for a few years; while the roots of the "rugged thistle," perennial amidst ruin, penetrate far deeper than those of many a stately forest tree. Thus it is that the plants which are especially named as forming a part of the "curse" of the ground, consequent on the first sin of man, are ever those which take root most effectually, and are the most difficult to eradicate. But so also is it, that these very plants are most usually the indicators of the richest and most fertile soil. Whence the saying attributed to the blind man in choosing a piece of land: "take me," or "tie me to a thistle." They may, therefore, be looked upon not merely as cruel weeds, but as guides, and, as it were, inducement for man to struggle against the natural world, to overcome it, and make it his own, by that labour which God, in His mercy, has made at once the punishment and the greatest blessing of mankind.
Thus, in the physical as in the moral world, where difficulties lie thickest, there only are the best fruits of conquest to be won!
* "Farmer's Magazine".
"Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns and thistles shall it bring forth unto thee." And in tracing out the literal fulfilment of this sentence we cannot but be impressed by the fact that, however persistent may be the thistle in a land so long tilled as our own island, it is not there that we must look for an exemplification of what the plant, in its unsubdued state of mighty strength, becomes. For this we must turn to the South American Pampas, where it springs up - in one brief summer's growth. - to a height of nine or ten feet; and stretches out far, far beyond the limits that the searching eye can reach, forming a level "sea of thistles," beneath whose giant stems the traveller, on losing his way, is more completely at fault than in the densest labyrinths of a tropical forest; since in them he could, at least, climb into the branches to ascertain in what direction his route should lie; whilst in the thistle-thickets that chance of escape is denied him, though the surrounding vegetation rises far above both horse and rider.* In the once fertile and smiling valleys of the Holy Land, too, the thistles shoot up tall and strong, where of old the fig-tree and the vine fruited amid the golden corn;† and on the great Russian steppes the peasant's hut is reared beneath the shelter of the thistle:- the Perikatipole of the Russian, the "wind witch," or "leap-in-the-field," of the German colonist; which, after taking possession of every spot which the plough or the spade leaves free by the most momentary relaxation of toil, forms, in its stately summer splendour, the burian, so bitterly complained of by native and settler.