My first impression of thistle, as a child, was of a precious flower. A rare, magenta gem hidden among the tall grasses in my coastal community in New England. My mother especially coveted these beautiful flowers and would scan the roadsides as my father drove us to the beach. On a few occasions when she spotted a particularly nice specimen, we would stop when leaving the beach. My mother would clip the thistle, bring it home, and give it a place of honor on our dining room table.
My best guess is that the thistle my mother so enjoyed was a lovely native plant to the area, the Pasture Thistle, a sweet-scented flower of the daisy family. But it might have been a non-native invasive thistle. Either way, it was like finding a treasure whenever we saw one.
When I moved to coastal California many years later, I was surprised to learn that thistle was an object of scorn, a non-native invasive plant that volunteers gave their time to remove from trails. Over time, I have noticed on my hikes that thistle grows widely and wildly in many of the Bay Areas parks that I travel. And I will admit that more than once I have found myself annoyed with the spread and spikiness of these thistles.
But I have also noticed that some of the Bay Area's most beautiful butterflies seem to enjoy feeding on the nectar of these invasive, non-native thistles. I have followed the gliding flight of many a Monarch butterfly hoping to be in the right place when one lands. My best luck (to date) has come from Monarchs landing on thistle.
I have also been captivated by the iridescent blue of large Pipevine Swallowtails flying in the Marin Headlands and Tilden Regional Park. These butterflies have also eluded my best efforts to capture their beauty in a photo, until recently. This week, I had the good fortune to spot a Pipevine Swallowtail, as it was feeding among a field of large non-native thistle flowers in Tennessee Valley.
Of course, there are still some native thistle plants in California. While in Yosemite last summer, the beautiful thistle shown at the top of this post caught my eye. I have yet to determine whether or not this is a native thistle. My research yielded some photos and descriptions that could lead me to either conclusion. Native or not, I'm left with a lovely flower.
And the butterflies are left with a sweet source of nectar.