thistle is not the kind of plant you usually find in a
maybe it should.
thistle is very attractive to goldfinches, hummingbirds
and clearwing moths," says native plant expert
Helen Hamilton of Williamsburg, Va. She is past
president of the John Clayton Chapter, Virginia Native
Plant Society, and co-author of "Wildflowers and
Grasses of Virginia’s Coastal Plain."
called Cirsium discolor, the prickly plant with deep-cut
leaves is a biennial (lasting two years), forming only a
low rosette of spiny leaves, according to Hamilton.
After the first year, the plant grows three to eight
inches tall, on light green, hairy stems without spines.
Spiny leaves alternate on the stem, green on the upper
side and white underneath. Cirsium discolor is sold by
Prairie Moon nursery at
flower heads appear at the ends of stems August through
November. The base of the flower head is roundish and
covered with bracts that look like fish scales. The
golden tint to the flower-head base is one of the
distinguishing characteristics of the three common
other species of thistles are common, Hamilton says.
Blooming June through November, the introduced bull
thistle (C. vulgare, native to Europe) has a very
prickly rose-purple flower head, and the stem is winged
with spines. The other native, yellow thistle (C.
horridulum), blooms earlier, March through June with a
yellow flower head.
are asters, but there are no rays, only disk flowers,
Hamilton explains. Many Aster family members, like
sunflowers and daisies, have both ray and disk flowers.
Birds and insects seek nectar by poking their bills or
proboscises around the tubular ray flowers. Look closely
at these flower heads, to see the style (female
reproductive part) emerging from the surrounding
cylinder of anthers.
thistle grows wild in nearly every county in Virginia,
in roadsides, fields, meadows and ranges from Quebec
west to Manitoba, south to North Carolina, Mississippi,
Louisiana and Kansas.
is an easy plant to grow, preferring full sun in loamy
soils," she says.
does well in the back of the perennial bed or in a
meadow. Since it blooms so late in the year, the masses
of the pink flowers covered with visiting goldfinches
furnish lots of color to the fall landscape. Goldfinches
eat the seeds and line their nests with the ‘thistledown,’
tufts of hair on the seeds that serve as
thistle is the host plant for the painted lady butterfly
— its caterpillars feed on the foliage. Many bees are
important pollinators for the flowers, and one is a
specialist — the thistle long-horned bee (Melissodes
desponsa) only visits members of the Cirsium genus.
painted lady is found on every continent during some
part of the year, except South America, according to
Hamilton. In North America, they probably spend winter
live almost everywhere, especially meadows, parks and
gardens," she says.
our area (in Virginia), males perch on bare ground in
open areas. After mating, females lay eggs on the tops
of host plant leaves, and the caterpillars live in silk
nests on the leaves."
lady is also known as the thistle butterfly, since
native thistles are the favorite food of the
caterpillars. Other host plants include hollyhock,
mallow and various legumes. The adults feed on nectar
from plants three to six feet tall, especially thistles,
but also asters, cosmos, blazing star, ironweed and
lady butterflies are similar to the American lady
(Vanessa virginiensis). Brian Taber, of the Coastal
Virginia Wildlife Observatory, says that painted lady is
not as common.
are some subtle differences on the tops of the wings, he
says, "but the best distinguishing feature is that
there are two large eyespots on the hindwing below for
the American and four small eyespots there for the