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Native Pasture Thistle Drama

Last fall a thoughtful friend who somehow remembered my ongoing plant wish list brought me a native pasture/field thistle (Cirsium discolor). It’s a biennial that has a basal rosette the first year and grows stalks and flowers the second year. Pasture thistle has disappointed me in the past. One time I grew a few glorious plants from seed that attracted an amazing number of pollinators including the rare American Bumblebee. Yet the plants didn’t reseed.

I take note of the plants the rare American Bumblebee seems to like and pasture thistle is on the list! (pictured is a male American Bumblebee)

I tried again and ended up with just one plant that made it to the second year and shot up over six feet, grew flower buds, then suddenly died before flowering. I moved on from thistles because my idea is to let the plants help me decide whether they are suited for my little ecosystem. I tend to try adding a plant a few times or plant it in three different places to see where it might do best.

Pasture thistle blooms in late summer so there is a longer time for critters, weather, or disease to get it before it flowers.

Anticipation is gardener fuel so the gift of another thistle from my friend gave me a third opportunity to watch multiple branches of thistle grow over five feet tall this spring. Pasture thistle is not known as a fussy plant, so I was hopeful I’ve just had a bit of bad luck with it. Native thistle is also a great habitat plant that I’d love to grow for the wildlife in my yard. The flowers attract a wide variety of pollinators including hummingbirds and the rare American Bumblebees, the seeds are devoured by goldfinches, the seed fluff is used for nesting material, it’s a host plant for multiple butterfly caterpillars including the painted lady butterfly, and the dried stalks are used by cavity nesting bees.

I planted the pasture thistle my friend gave me in what I thought was a safe, out of the way spot along my back deck.

Native thistles (pasture/Cirsium discolor and tall/Cirsium altissimum) are different from the non-native and often invasive bull thistles (Cirsium vulgare) found throughout North America. Bull thistles have sharper and spikier, all-green leaves. Our native thistles aren't quite as spikey, and the underside of the leaves are bright white.

This leaf of a native pasture thistle shows the more gentle spikes in the leaf and the white underside of the leaf.

Last week when my husband mentioned he was going to fix the front walkway lights I didn’t think anything of it. About a half hour later I went out back to bring some compost to our bin I noticed he was doing something with an electrical box under our back deck and had knocked over my thistle! I had no idea the box was somehow connected to our outdoor light system, and he’d be tromping through one of my plant communities, and he had no idea the thistle was anything special. After all, there are hundreds of different plants in my rewilded yard - how could he know this was the only pasture thistle?

Even though there are many different native plants growing in my little oasis of urban biodiversity I keep track of pretty much all of learn more about how they grow.

He also knows I pride myself as a native plant habitat gardener on not being fussy about plants the way typical gardeners are about exotic ornamentals. I work to have a live and let live approach and try to let the plants guide me - needy plants and naturescaping don’t mix well. Still, I was pretty upset about the thistle and kind of freaked out on him a bit. I may have teared up for a second over my disappointment. After two years growing, the thistle it was almost at the finish line of blooming and completing it's life cycle. I tried to refocus my energy, breathed a few meditative breaths, and carefully snipped off the broken leaves and staked the bent over stalks as best I could.

The pasture thistle had a few less leaves and stalks, but staking it seemed to help it revive a bit from the trauma of being trampled.

The next day my darling husband brought home two native plants from Beech Hollow Farm, a local native plant nursery. He went there with a photo much like the one aboveof the staked thistle to try and fix the situation. Everyone, including customers, jumped in trying to figure out what it was. They even called the owner so she could help! Beech Hollow has an amazing selection of native plants but didn’t have pasture thistle probably because biennials are not that common at native plant nurseries. He told them he knew nothing about native plants and asked them for help finding a plant I might not have as a peace offering. I love the two choices the staff made for him – Indian pink (Spigelia marilandica) and hearts-a-bustin (Euonymus americanus).

The spigelia and hearts-a-bustin are great "I'm sorry" gifts to give to anyone naturescaping with native plants!

Indian Pink is not a commonly grown native plant although it grows fairly easily and spreads slowly and steadily in moist, shady areas. Spigelia only grows one to two feet tall and makes a good plant to put along a woodland garden path where its striking flowers make it a great native plant goodwill ambassador.

Hummingbirds are attracted to spigelia's tubular red flower.

Heart-a-bustin’ is a shade tolerant shrub with bright red, fleshy and ornamental seeds that burst open from the fruit in the fall. The flowers are pollinated by small bees, flies, and ants, the seeds are eaten by birds, and it’s the primary host plant for the American ermine moth.

Hearts-a-bustin' is an easy to grow yet uncommon native habitat plant to add to a shady spot..

It would be hard for someone to figure out what native plants aren’t growing in my densely planted yard. I already have Indian pink and hearts-a-bustin, but the new plants are now contributing to our human habitat as a reminder of why I am married to my sweet, earnest husband. The Indian pink has a special place in one of the stacked stone planter beds at the end of my driveway, and the hearts-a-bustin’ is with now with other woodland plants in the back corner of my yard.

I collect heavy, short metal fence panels at estate sales and use them for temporary plant protection - like around my new baby hearts-a-bustin shrub. The woodland plants in the background include little brown jug wild ginger (Hexastylis arifolia), alleghany spurge (Pachysandra procumbens), yellow wood poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum), and longleaf woodoats (Chasmanthium sessiliflorum) in the very back corner.

P.S. Don't tell my husband but the pasture thistle rebounded after being staked and so far, appears to be doing fine - hopefully will make it to flower in the late summer!

Hopefully by the end of summer my yard will have blooming thistle for all the pollinators who love it!

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