Wandering Thistle

Cirsium horridulum
Common names ~ Bristle Thistle, Yellow Thistle, Horrid Thistle, Purple Thistle, Spiny Thistle, Bull Thistle
Family ~ Asteraceae (Aster Family)
Photos taken at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge

The thistle is the official floral emblem of Scotland. The logo for the Encyclopaedia Britannica incorporates the thistle as well and the thistle  flower was used to symbolize the Virgin Mary during the middle ages. It also stands for resilience, bravery, courage, evil, protection and pride among other things. An edible plant, the thistle is native to North America and grows in marshy areas. I was struck by the fact that this flower made itself visible every place on the Refuge, stark like the sun.

I used this to explore the poem ‘Thistles’,  written by Ted Hughes besides writing my own. He was quite famously, the husband of Sylvia Plath and was appointed Poet Laureate of England in 1984, a post he held until his death. I have included below a link [1] to a good analysis of his poem by Andrew Spacey, that helped me appreciate it better. (Poem and notes further down).

My poem ‘wandering thistle‘ is based on the peculiarities of flora and fauna at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge [2] which I visited in the latter part of May. Some species of Thistle are considered to be aggressive weeds in gardens, but the thistle is a hardy plant, it produces more spines when the landscape gets drier as an ecological adaptation. An important source of nectar for pollinating insects, it is also a source of enzymes for the manufacturing of vegetarian rennet, the leaves are edible too. The family Asteraceae or Compositae consist of many economically useful plants. The flower heads are actually an inflorescence of around hundred disc flowers, hence their inclusion in the family Compositae, like sunflowers. The fruiting body is known as an achene. The ponies of Assateague Island mentioned in the poem are a tourist attraction and do affect the refuge with their grazing habits. They are therefore kept at a limited number of animals on the land by the Local Fire Company. [3][4][5}.

Wandering Thistle ~ Davina E. Solomon

In the threshing turbulence of a wetland,
her spiny wanderer traces through
that colonial mishap in ponies.

Fire fighters breed ungulate hearts
in Virginia, amidst the arson of an intrepid.
A composite of helping hands harvesting

light, but you only thought of sunflowers,
those distant cousins. She wears an armour
of spines, winnowing the day

into a bright blitz of flares, becoming
thistles on thistle. They milk her for
rennet, unlike those grazing ponies that simply

frolic on sand. but you only thought of ponies,
those distant lives. She wears frills in her leaves
that blend into sustenance for the foraging free.

She poisons your land you say? Those bumblebees
spirit out her soul, tiger swallowtails
punctuate her poetry in jousting colour

or secrete love into their life cycle
of the sweetness of nectar. Is this a
billowing battle even as her achenes

fly those self same stories of ancient ardour
on a surreptitious silky wind that
wars with no one but her singular soul.
Thistles by Ted Hughes

Against the rubber tongues of cows and the hoeing hands of men
Thistles spike the summer air
And crackle open under a blue-black pressure.

Every one a revengeful burst
Of resurrection, a grasped fistful
Of splintered weapons and Icelandic frost thrust up

From the underground stain of a decayed Viking.
They are like pale hair and the gutturals of dialects.
Every one manages a plume of blood.

Then they grow grey like men.
Mown down, it is a feud. Their sons appear
Stiff with weapons, fighting back over the same ground.


In my own attempt at analysing this poem: This poem appears masculine. Even as benign ruminants and industrious tillers of soil are portrayed to create social pressure for thistles, the aggravated flower is Martian in it’s resolute attempt to resurrect itself, like a warrior, fighting for land, for presence, amidst a cacophony of a myriad voices, others just like them. Set against this botanical and pastoral imagery, seed dehiscence is used as a metaphor for destruction, seed dispersal and germination as a way to recreate the ancestral, to perpetuate in the way of plants through the perennial feud as in the ways of men that live alongside them carry forth the social order for survival. Nature is a battleground in this poem. It also illustrates how language shapes our worldview. Through a botanical perspective it appears to be the life cycle of thistle, through personification, it’s the genesis of war and battles, through social darwinism simply the survival of organisms constantly fighting for space on a harsh landscape, poetry though, seems to exhibit all perspectives. Language becomes the vehicle for creating fictions by consciously channelling the inner voice, whether through our happy optimism, scientific realism or poetry on metaphorical combat.

Some aspects elucidated in Andrew Spacey’s analysis are that, ‘Thistles is a free verse poem in 4 stanzas, a total of 12 lines of varying length. There is no rhyme scheme, no consistent metrical beat.’

Hughes’s allusion to Vikings, Spacey notes that, ‘ Vikings invaded Hughes’ land centuries earlier (7th-10th century AD) and were a strong force in and around Hughes’s birthplace in the Calder Valley in what is now Yorkshire”. The gutturals of dialects he compares to the raspy Yorkshire dialect that is still spoken by people some of whose ancestors count among pale haired Scandinavians.’

His analysis helped identify all the literary devices [5] employed therein:

Alliteration in ‘hoeing hands, spike the summer, blue-black, then they grow grey,’ the assonance in ‘crackle – blue-black, every – revengeful, stain – decayed,’ Caesura in ‘Of resurrection’, a bit of enjambed lines in lines 1,2, 4,5,6, Personification of thistles as revengeful and fighting back, Similes in ‘they are like pale hair, the gutturals of dialects and then they grow grey, like men.’

I have tried to define the literary devices used:

Alliteration ~ a repetition of initial consonant sounds at the beginning of words that are close to each other or follow each other
Assonance ~ a repetition of vowel sounds in words that are close within a sentence or phrase of prose or poem
Caesura ~ a rhythmic pause at the beginning (initial), middle (medial) or end (terminal) line in a poem, that is with or without punctuation, indicated by parallel lines ||, and can be after an unstressed syllable as in a feminine caesura or after a long stressed syllable in a masculine caesura
Personification is a bit like anthropomorphising, providing human characteristics to non human objects or organisms
Simili ~ a comparison of the dissimilar with one another through the use of words like or as
Enjambment ~ a line of the poem works it’s way to the next line without a grammatical pause or punctuation, to carry forth an idea or the flow of thought


[1] Analysis of the ‘Thistles ( Ted Hughes)’ by Andrew Spacey ~https://owlcation.com/humanities/Analysis-of-Poem-Thistles-by-Ted-Hughes


[3]Species list on Chincoteague Refuge ~https://www.fws.gov/uploadedFiles/Appendix%20L_CHN%20Draft%20CCPEIS.pdf



[6]Literary Devices (an encyclopediac resource, very helpful) ~https://literarydevices.net/

Leaf in translation

I grew to appreciate and love xerophytic plants while in Tanzania, some of them, succulents. I was obsessed with them perhaps, for there were plants that spilled out of the garden and climbed onto the rooftop terrace. It was there, that the hot blazing all-season-sun demanded that I grow only sun loving flora, the kind that demand little attention or water. Getting those plants up there was another matter entirely, many of them fully grown specimens from the nursery that no one thought to provide a home for.

There were many varieties of agaves, including the piercingly dangerous Sisals or Agave sisalana, the spiny edged grey green leaves with a central creamy stripe of the Agave americana. I even managed  a couple of very mangled sinuously woven  Euphorbia milii. the crown of thorns/Christ thorn that had to be carried upstairs, wrapped in thick curtains, many leafy serrations of Aloe succotrina or the plant of immortality, snaky leaf blades of Sansevieria laurentii and Sansevieria Zeylanica also known  as Devil’s Tongue or snake plant, an abundance of the toxic leaves of Euphorbia tirucalli or the pencil cactus and other such. It was not all Dante’s inferno up there, there were some thorny Bougainvillea that added vivid splashes of colour. I didn’t dream up this hellscape, it’s just what the hot tropical sun dictated I should add to a sun burnt terrace, a varied assortment of spectacularly sculpted, hardy and mostly indigenous survivors.

It was never easy entertaining families with children on that terrace and I recollect a conversation with one of our guests who once brought two excited and energetic kids over, when I told him of the plants around and that he may have to ensure his children not try to touch or eat them or heaven forbid, impale themselves. After a composite botanical  soliloquy, I remember him as he blinked his English eyes to say, “Davina, behind every stem, leaf and blossom, there lurks indescribable danger”. Such poesy, I marveled at the thorns then and so poetically alarming my garden felt in the freshly pained perspective of another.

Inspired by this memory, I wrote something for my beloved Xerophytic Underworld of plants today. I believe, the pencil cactus does not intentionally mean to poison nor the gardener wish to poison those that cohabit with gardens. Some people find Christ in thorns, others inadvertently encounter an acupuncture perhaps, but the poor plant, Euphorbia milii for example,  simply aims to conserve water in a leaf modification. 

Process and form: I have employed open rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter. The imagery is of a xerophytic garden. This blog post is a work in progress as I may add to the images, as and when I retrieve them from my archive.

Do mind the children, like you mind the gap. 
It's potently toxic, thick milky sap,
sparkling wit, this quill of desperation,
a pencil plants sad self flagellation.
Don't have them stigmata on the Christ thorn,
Mystic plants be penitently adorned ...
Bougainvillea, temptress, thorny hues,
rainbows sickle the bay in gentler views.
Snake plants little encrypt foul letter words,
leaves caressed, poetize in trenchant swords.    
Drooping in flowers, a turgid  aloe
sucks a searing sun, makes it mellow.
Marvel the poesy of this green being,
to her thorny poignancy, halcyon ring.    
Hades, a solar hellfire meant to burn?
Or a riot of cacti to help us learn?
A distant sun couldn't hurt any less,
such willing serrations that plants confess. 
The cornered sweet sisal has little wish,
to impale lost boys, any flying fish.
Words shed like leaves in a desert mirage,
paint vivid synonyms to love's collage.
What of real beauty in sunburnt green,
simply, arid soliloquy serene.
Chiseled 'take no prisoners' leaves conceal,
sisal ropes, would you know that aloes heal? 
In this garden are no sashaying leaves,
care's simply braided in dignified weaves.
I wince for no Eden meant so little,
to poets of blossoms, verdant spittle
in quatrains for bowers on Gaia's face,
they exiled agaves to a barren space.
'Thorn' mocks, what jest a flippant word conceals,
leafless stems hide retrograde love, that heals
the earth of its gravel proclivity,
to a holding place...to eternity.
Let children whisper in Eden of pain,
childhood's a dream, till we be child again.

Know your plants: I will add to these as and when I retrieve the images from my collection. For now, I have used some from Wikipedia.

Euphorbia tirucalli ~ Wikimedia Commons

Euphorbia tirucalli (commonly known as Indian tree spurge, naked lady, pencil tree, pencil cactus, milk bush) grows in semi-arid tropical climates. A hydrocarbon plant, it produces a poisonous latex that can cause temporary blindness. The pencil tree is a shrub or small tree with pencil-thick, green, smooth, succulent branches that reaches heights of growth of up to 7 meters. It has a cylindrical and fleshy stem with fragile succulent twigs that are 7 mm thick, often produced in whorls, longitudinally, finely striated ~https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euphorbia_tirucalli

Aloe succotrina ~ Wikimedia Commons
Sansevieria trifasciata or Dracaena trifasciata laurentii ~ Wikipedia
Left to right: 1)The oyster plant (Tradescantia spathacea)/boat lily/Moses-in-the-cradle (drought tolerant, indirect light) 2) Variegated agave, Agave americana has creamy white marking on the middle of the leaf as opposed to the edges 3)Crown of thorns, (Euphorbia milii), also called Christ thorn, the red bracts subtend the flowers that are inconspicuous

Agaves are characterized by a rosette of succulent or leathery leaves that range in size from a few centimetres to more than 2.5 metres (8 feet) in length, depending on the species. Most bear spines along the edges and the tip of the leaf ~https://www.britannica.com/plant/Agave

Crown of thorns, (Euphorbia milii), also called Christ thorn, is a hardy perennial with stout gray thorns and oval leaves that drop as they age. The sprawling, branching, vinelike stems can attain lengths of more than two metres (seven feet), though potted plants are considerably smaller. The small inconspicuous flowers are borne in paired clusters and are surrounded by two showy light red bracts (leaflike structures attached just below flowers). Various forms are available with yellow or deep red bracts. The white milky sap is poisonous and can cause skin and eye irritation ~https://www.britannica.com/plant/crown-of-thorns-plant

Assortment of Agaves and a Yucca with a trunk; drought tolerant, xerophytic and the soil needs to well drained.

Notes and references:

Xerophyte, any plant adapted to life in a dry or physiologically dry habitat (salt marsh, saline soil, or acid bog) by means of mechanisms to prevent water loss or to store available water. Succulents (plants that store water) such as cacti and agaves have thick, fleshy stems or leaves. Other xerophytic adaptations include waxy leaf coatings, the ability to drop leaves during dry periods, the ability to reposition or fold leaves to reduce sunlight absorption, and the development of a dense, hairy leaf covering ~https://www.britannica.com/plant/xerophyte

Thorns are modified stems, like those of bougainvillea. Spines are modified leaves, like those of cacti. Prickles are modified epidermis, like those of roses. Then there are all sorts of plants with spinose leaf margins, like English holly.

Resource for thorns, spines, prickles~https://lompocrecord.com/lifestyles/columnist/thorns-spines-and-prickles/article_0df8fc5b-c8c4-5037-ba78-bf44032b8f88.amp.html

Vegetative terminology~https://www2.palomar.edu/users/warmstrong/ecoph30a.htm#:~:text=The%20thorn%20is%20technically%20a,modified%2C%20sharp-pointed%20leaf.

Couplet poetry: