Standing tall, each throws up bright pink to lavender..

There is a growing trend in ecology in which we seem to know more about invasive species than we do about their native relatives. In no group of plants is this more true than of the thistles in the genus Cirsium. Much maligned as a lawn pest or gobbled up as an artichoke, the human/thistle relationship in North America is rocky at best. However, outside of invasive pests or a healthy treat, North America’s native thistles are vital components of the ecosystems to which they belong. Both as nectar resources and larval hosts, one can do some serious benefit to their landscape by incorporating these plants into a planting. Here at Prairie Moon, we offer two wonderful species of native thistle, the pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor – and the swamp thistle (Cirsium muticum – Decidedly less spiny than their invasive relatives, these two species nonetheless retain the overall thistle appearance. Standing tall, each throws up bright pink to lavender flower clusters that attract everything from bees to butterflies and even the occasional hummingbird. When in seed, flocks of goldfinches descend upon these plants for food and nest materials. Both are biennial in habit and will spend their first season as a rosette of leaves. Pasture thistle is a denizen of open fields and meadows, appreciating a decent amount of sun and medium to dry soils. Swamp thistle, as you may have guessed, likes things a bit more wet. Like many wetland species, this thistle is on the decline throughout its range as wetlands get turned into housing developments and strip malls. Both species suffer from the hatred we feel towards their invasive cousins. Many are probably destroyed due to mistaken identity. One easy way to tell the difference is that the leaves of our native thistles are downy on the underside whereas the invasives are not. While they probably aren’t for everyone, the true plant enthusiasts among us will no doubt revel in the glory of these often overlooked natives. If given a chance, I am sure that even the most cynical amongst us may come around to gardening with these interesting and valuable species.


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