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Shakespeare’s Favourite Flowers: The Thistle

Librarian Mareike Doleschal explores the contrasting associations of nature's most prickly flower, the thistle.

Mareike Doleschal

The flower with the most contradictory associations, which gardeners have opposing views on, is the thistle. To some, it is a flower; others call it a weed. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's garden team consider thistles more weeds than plants in most of our borders, but we can get some very beautiful ornamental thistles. Also, our gardeners let thistles grow in our wildflower areas for nourishment and protection of the wildlife.

Best known as the national symbol of Scotland, there are over 200 species of this flower, which can grow up to eight feet. Its touch is prickly, and it can survive where other plants can’t. Not surprisingly, such a controversial plant has contrasting symbolism. In Celtic countries, the associations are positive, and the flower symbolises resilience, strength, determination, protection and pride. The flower’s purple and pink colours represent royalty. In Victorian England, the thistle signified pain, aggression and intrusion. Receiving a bouquet with thistles would have been interpreted as a warning against meddling in other peoples’ business. Probably the most negative association of the thistle is with evil. According to a legend going back to the Middle Ages, the plant got its negative reputation because it grew in cemeteries.[1]

Herbalists during Shakespeare’s time, Turner, Culpepper and Gerard, were full of praise for the thistle, in particular the blessed thistle, which acquired a reputation for curing a multitude of ills; including the plague. In his Herbal, published 1568, Turner recommends the juice or powder of the thistle as a cure for headaches. In 1652, Culpepper wrote: “It [the thistle] helps plague-sores, boils and itch, the biting of mad dogs and venomous beasts.”[2] Gerard provides a long list of how the thistle can treat many illnesses and aches, including toothache, dizziness, fevers, swellings, bad breath and plague sores.

I am sure Shakespeare was aware of the medicinal benefits of the thistle as one of his characters, Margaret, in his play Much Ado About Nothing, recommends using the blessed or holy thistle, also called Cardus Benedictus, as a cure for treating lovesickness:

“Get you some of this distilled Carduus Benedictus

And lay it to your heart.”

Much Ado About Nothing, Act 3 Scene 4

Illustration in Walter Crane's book Flowers from Shakespeare: a posy from the plays (1909).

The conversation between the two women inspired artist Walter Crane, who chose to illustrate the women’s words in his book Flowers from Shakespeare: a posy from the plays (1909). His illustration differs from all the others in his book in that the artist chose an older male figure to represent the thistle flower. In all other artworks, Crane depicts young, often androgynous-looking figures to symbolise a flower. When it comes to the thistle, he took a different approach: an elderly, bearded male, clad in a long gown, decorated with the leaves and blossoms of the thistle, represents the controversial plant. The druid-like man raises his right arm, two fingers pointing to heaven as if he was about to cast a magic spell. In his left hand, he carries a thistle like a sceptre, and on his head, he wears a thistle blossom; its spiky leaves are reminiscent of a crown. In Crane’s illustration, the thistle is the king of the flowers, its medicinal properties worthy of royal representation.

Although Shakespeare appreciated the plant’s virtues, he also referred to it as a weed. In his play Henry V, after the battle of Agincourt, the Duke of Burgundy meets the defeated French King and his nobles. Burgundy begs for reconciliation and tells of the impact of war on French farmland:

“The even mead - that erst brought sweetly forth

The freckled cowslip, burnet, and green clover -

Wanting the scythe, all uncorrected, rank,

Conceives by idleness, and nothing teems

But hateful docks, rough thistles, kecksies, burs,

Losing both beauty and utility.”

Henry V, Act 5 Scene 2

sbt-os-56-83039953-flowers-of-shakespeare-1845-plate-27 THISTLE.jpg
Illustration in Jane Elizabeth Giraud's book The Flowers of Shakespeare (1845).

The fields are overgrown with weeds, and the blade that should remove the wilderness lies rusting. The meadow, where once the cowslip and clover grew, is now full of weeds, including the “rough” thistles. In this context, Shakespeare defines the thistle as a weed and the plant’s symbolism is entirely negative.

Victorian artist Jane Elizabeth Giraud illustrated the Duke of Burgundy’s lines in her book The Flowers of Shakespeare (1845). In contrast to Shakespeare’s view on thistles in Henry V, Giraud doesn’t define the thistle as a weed. Her illustration shows a bouquet that mixes meadow plants, such as green clover, burnet and cowslip, with plants that grow in abandoned farmland. Giraud is more concerned with creating a botanical resemblance and not expressing any kind of symbolism. Perhaps her approach is best when representing such a controversial flower.

With thanks to Shakespeare Birthplace Trust garden team leader Bertie Smith.

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