Shrivelled and dried up in autumn, in such a manner that its stems contract into a ball, while the roots loose their hold of the earth, it suddenly becomes free, and rolls away before the autumn blasts; now bounding onwards in fantastic and gigantic strides, now springing in quick short leaps, or anon whirling in great circles over the plain, until caught up in the air to a height of perhaps a hundred feet; then, falling again to the ground, the rolling ball rushes forwards with the storm-wind, and frequently united with others, like a band of armed men, the huge heap of thistles hooked together by their prickly spines, charges with headlong speed some flying company of wandering Tartar horsemen; who, not unnaturally, look with superstitious dread at a "thing" which leaps and bounds over the vast level with so unearthly a movement; stalking onwards, as Kohl expresses it, like a giant in his "seven-leagued boots."*
* See Sir F. Head's "Pampas." † SeeDr. Clarke's "Travels," etc, etc.
Again, in Australia, we may observe the growing alarm excited by the rapid spread of the milk-thistle (C. marianus), which, having been accidentally introduced by the European settlers, has found the rich and virgin soil most congenial to its requirements; for it not only frequently there attains to a height of six or eight feet, but disseminates itself in such a manner that districts of a hundred acres are frequently seen in New South Wales densely covered with this exotic plant. In the same manner the so-called Bathurst burr - a Patagonian plant, the hooked seeds of which were carried to the vicinity of Bathurst in the flowing tails and manes of some Patagonian horses imported to that district - has literally taken possession of whole districts; actually approaching so near to the Equator as Brisbane-town (South), which lies in the parallel 27° 30' S.
* See Schleiden's "Plant," etc.
To such a serious extent has this evil increased in the colony of Victoria, that an Act of Parliament "against the growth of thistles," which received the Royal assent on the 19th of March, 1855, enforces penalties of the greatest severity against persons suffering thistle-plants to remain on their land. According to this Act, which, of course, applies equally to the public lands and to private holdings, any owner, lessee, or occupier of land in Victoria upon which, or on the half of any road adjacent thereto, thistles are growing, is bound, after fourteen days' notice, signed by a justice of the peace, to destroy all thistles upon such land, or failing to do so, he incurs a penalty of not less than 51. nor more than 201. Service of the notice at the occupier's usual or last known place of abode is held good, and all cases under the Act are determined in a summary way by two or more justices of the peace. The justices, however, have power to suspend the conviction on proof that the occupier has used, and is using, reasonable exertions to destroy the plant. No information can be laid against any owner of land until the Act has been enforced against the occupier or lessee, and no second information can be laid within thirty days after a previous conviction.
If any owner, lessee, or occupier neglect, or refuse to destroy thistles on his land for a space of seven days after the receipt of notice, any person armed with a written authority from a justice of the peace may enter on the land, with sufficient assistants to destroy and eradicate the nuisance, and may cause the expenses to be assessed by two justices of the peace, and recover them in a summary way. Persons armed with the written authority of a magistrate may enter on lands to search for thistles without being guilty of a trespass, and are not liable for any damage done unless inflicted unnecessarily and wilfully. Justices are empowered to issue orders for search, and to order the destruction of thistles.
Of the united species pertaining to the genera Carduus, Cnicus, Onopordum, and Carlina, Great Britain possesses fifteen. These are, the musk-thistle (Carduus nutans); the welted-thistle (C. acanthoides); the slender-flowered-thistle (C. tenui-florus); and the milk-thistle (C. marianus); the spear plume-thistle (Cnicus lanceolatus); the marsh-thistle (C. palustris); the creeping plume-thistle (C. arvensis); the bog-thistle (C.Forsteri), - which, however, Mr. Borrer suspects to be a hybrid between C. palustris and the meadow plume-thistle (C. pra-tensis); - the woolly-headed plume-thistle (C. erio-phorus); the tuberose plume-thistle (C. tuberosus); the melancholy-thistle (C. heterophyllus); and the dwarf plume-thistle (C. acaulis). The Onopor-dium, and the Carlmas, each boast but one British species; viz., the 0. Acanthium, or cotton-thistle; and the common carline-thistle (C. vulgaris), which is sparingly found in the Isle of Arran, and in Ber-manhead, etc.
Some of our own thistles are of a most stately and majestic growth; though we habitually associate them so closely with the idea of desolation and neglect, that we turn indifferently from the aspect of some dreary hill-side clothed with a mantle of thistles, all of equal height; or sadly, from some small neglected corn-field, in which they threaten to overpower the struggling crop. Yet we should find, on examination, that they are plants of extreme beauty, delicacy of proportion, and even grace. How great, how characteristic, a beauty does the autumn landscape derive from even so trifling a thing as the far-floating thistle-down; those winged seeds, which, in obedience to Nature's command for their universal dissemination, fly forth, in ceaseless silence, on their mission.
In the words of Thomson; -
"Wide o'er the thistly lawn - as swells the breeze, A whitening shower of vegetable down Amusive floats:" and Ossian describes the zephyrs as chasing these "thistle threads'" through the air. The venerable naturalist, to whom we have so often referred, describes these "frolicsome and uncertain" dances; most truthfully remarking that, though but "miniature traits, they are as essential to the completion of the landscape, as are, to the completion of human happiness, the many little emotions and impressions, the numerous trivial incidents, which separately pass away, almost unfelt and unperceived."*
Another beauty has the thistle, when every delicate hair arrests a dew-drop on a showery April morning; and when the purple blossom of a roadside thistle turns its face to heaven, and welcomes the wild bee, who lies close upon its flowerets on the approach of some storm-cloud, until its shadow be past away. For, with unerring instinct, the bee well knows that the darkness is but for the moment, that the sun will shine out again ere long, and that he may safely remain without the shelter of his own home, to which, were a torrent impending, he would at once hasten; while he offers us one of the many lessons of trust and submission often to be learned from the apparently most trivial, though, in reality, the most instructive, circumstances, exemplifying, as they do so beautifully, the care shewn by the Creator for His smallest works.
* Dr. G. Johnston's "Botany of the Eastern Borders".