Thistle Thoughts

ute full of thistles

Our family’s harvest of thistles. Photo by Alan Perkins.

Today I was inspired while weeding.  This was not the dainty weeding that one does in a household garden bed.  No, one afternoon on my Christmas holidays I spent the afternoon with the rest of our family pulling thistles out of an infested paddock on my brother’s farm.  When I wasn’t pulling thistles I was chief thistle spotter and bag puller.  As you can see from the photo we filled one ute tray with thistles and there’s still more to be done.

Top half of a flowering thistle plant.

A photo of a thistle is better than the real thing – no prickles! Photo by Alan Perkins

So I suppose you are thinking that given we were weeding on such a large scale that my inspiration must be similarly large, maybe even momentous.  You may be right.  In fact my inspiration was so compelling that I have passed on a game of scrabble to share my inspiration with you.

It all started with a simple question.  Why, oh why, did Tasmania’s early settlers feel so compelled to transport such a dastardly prickly plant thousands of kilometres from its home in Scotland and plant it in the antipodes?

closeup of a thistle flower

The symetrical beauty of a thistle flower. Photo by Alan Perkins.

I asked my brother this question while we were toiling away. He waxed lyrical about the beauty of the flower head and the various stages of its growth.  I admire his ability to appreciate an invasive weed but I am no romantic about it.  A thistle can look equally beautiful in a photo, but a photo does not prick you.  A paddock full of thistle photos would be waaaay better than a paddock full of thistle plants in full flower ready to multiply and multiply.

So, dear reader, while I was pulling thistles out of the ground I became inspired to share with you a little something about the beginning of thistles in Tasmania and some of my thistle thoughts.

The first report of thistles in Tasmania (or Van Diemen’s Land is it was then known) that I can find in a newspaper joyfully announces that “Mr. Gordon of Forcett, has received… a few seeds of a magnificent variety of the real Scotch thistle” (Hobart Town Courier, 8/3/1828, p 3).  The article continues, “It has been not inaptly called Carduus Burniensis, from being found originally within the iron railing which surrounds the grave of the poet Burns at Dumfries.”

And this is the important point about the history of thistles in Tasmania.  The thistle is the national flower of Scotland.  The early settlers suffered from environmental culture shock. It was difficult for them to embrace the antipodean environment after they had been so abruptly and permanently removed from their homes half a world away.  The plants, the animals and the topography were so different to those back home.  Whether they wanted to or not, the settlers had to adapt to the new environment but where they could they introduced little reminders of their homes they had left behind – hence the thistle.  These introduced species were not necessarily ornamental; many were introduced to help the settlers produce the food that they were used to eating.  A brief overview of plants introduced to Tasmania during the nineteenth century can be found here.

There were early indications that thistles were becoming a problem in Van Diemen’s Land.  In 1832 The Hobart Town Courier opined:

But besides this attention to the propagation of useful plants at this time, some is also necessary in order to check the ruinous spreading of noxious ones.  A few years ago when the Rev. Mr. Knopswood lived at Cottage Green, he happened to have a Scotch thistle in his garden, the seeds of which disseminated themselves along the shore at the Battery, and the plants springing from them were admired and religiously protected by emigrating patriots of old Scotia who approached them.  Since that time however they have become so numerous and have spread themselves so widely that almost every field and garden for miles round is more or less infested with them and the purposes of our remark at this time when the winged seeds are on the point of quitting their native pedestals, is to entreat all those who have any interest in fields or gardens, to use some diligence in destroying them.

The Hobart Town Courier, 28/1/1832, p 2.

Bush track surrounded by trees

A beautiful section of the Kaoota Tramway Track.

Thistles continue to be a problem in Tasmania today.  Hubble and I went on a bike ride up Kaoota Road to the top of the Kaoota Tramway Track.  There they were – thistles!  But we didn’t let that spoil our journey.  The scenery was magnificent, the scent from the trees was fragrant and the calls of a variety of birds filled the soundscape.

The thistle history of Tasmania reminds me of an unexpected conversation I had with the author of 1835, James Boyce, at his stall at Salamanca Market last Saturday.  I will be writing more about this in another post but of relevance here is that Boyce noted that the environment has a significant impact on humans and this should be reflected in our historical understanding.  Humanity’s relationship with the environment works two ways.  We make a significant impact on our natural environment, but likewise the natural environment affects our behaviour to a considerable degree.  In order to understand our history better we need to understand the impact our environment has had on people in the past.

Bush track

The Kaoota Tramway Track with Hubble on his bike.

There will be more about the environmental history of Australia on Stumbling Through the Past in 2013.  The history of the impact that Australia’s environment has had on people since European settlement interests me.  I am looking forward to reviewing some Australian environmental histories over the coming year and I’ll see what else I can dig up.

Thistle do for now!

8 thoughts on “Thistle Thoughts

  1. Great post! Equal parts entertaining and educational. I look forward to reading about your talk with James Boyce, and also some more environmental history, an area I am also interested in, but know quite little about.

    • Thanks Chloe! I reckon that there is a huge vista awaiting those historians embarking on Australian environmental history. I’m looking forward to forward to reading the work that has been done so far.

  2. Thistle do now! Very good! Funnily enough I am right one immersed in Van Dieman’s land of the 1820s to 1830s in a biography of Henry Savery, Australia’s first novelist. Thistles aren’t mentioned though. Henry arrived in 1825 …

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