Texas Thistle ~ From Bud to Bloom

One of our prettiest and most useful plants, the Texas thistle (Cirsium texanum) begins blooming in April and continues to benefit a variety of birds and insects throughout the summer. A larval host for the Painted Lady butterfly, the plant provides nourishment for a variety of native bees, including bumblebees, and birds such as Goldfinches make use of its fluff and its seeds.

Each plant produces a single flower at the top of its usually unbranched stem. Sometimes confused with Engelmann’s thistle (Cirsium engelmannii), Texas thistle lacks that plant’s spiny bracts at the base of its flower.

 Its color and form are especially attractive, and its minimal prickliness makes it a fine addition to landscapes or pollinator gardens.


Comments always are welcome.

65 thoughts on “Texas Thistle ~ From Bud to Bloom

    1. I often see the resemblance between the American Basket-flower and bachelor buttons, and thistles can play basket-flower mimic in the same way. I was happily driving along south of Hondo when I began seeing the ditches filled with tall, pink and lavender flowers. I was sure they were these thistles, until I realized how wrong I was. They were my beloved basket-flowers — of course I stopped to visit.

  1. The bud has wonderful form, great shot! Which is true to form for you, of course. It’s so lovely, and fun, to see your Texas flower photos.

    1. Isn’t it a beautiful bud? I love the symmetry, and all the little prickles on the outside. One of the best things about spring is the presence of bud and bloom together — before weather and insects do their worst.

  2. Thistles are generally not well loved by humans but they are incredibly valuable to pollinators and seed-eating finches. Surely their harshest critic would have to agree that their flowers are beautiful.

    1. Even our very worst (i.e., most prickly) native thistle — Cirsium horridulum, or the so-called horrid thistle has a gorgeous flower which can be either yellow or pink. I love photographing it, and a friend has a horse who loves to nip off the flowers and eat them.

    1. Ah, yes — the horrid thistle! It’s true that the thistle-y part is pretty darned dramatic, but it’s such a large plant it’s easy to avoid. The only time it’s given me any trouble is when it’s first emerging, and the basal leaves are hidden in grasses. Sit on one, and you’ll know it! I’m fascinated by the fact that in my area the flowers are mostly yellow; the farther south I travel, the more pink blooms I see. I used to think I was seeing two different plants, but I wasn’t.

  3. Second day in a row I see a word and Snoop creeps into my vocabulary with “Shistle”.

    Thistles get a bad rap although they do sometimes give a bad scratch. They are lovely and similar to Steve’s Prickly Pear post, I’d say beautiful but don’t touch. Not as bad as an Opuntia but painful just the same. These two images are certainly the beautiful side of thistles. And another source of thistle beauty would be this program.

    1. I’ve listened to the Thistle and Shamrock, and enjoyed the music tremendously. For the most part, thistles don’t give me any problems when I’m out and about — primarily because I can spot them. Dewberries and other thorny vines are more of a problem. On the other hand, I just mentioned to Chris my propensity for plopping down on when they’re very young. Even those newest leaves can be well armored!

    1. Indeed they are. It’s great fun to see all the insects that come to them. Butterflies and bees are common enough, but I really enjoy seeing the various flower beetles that roam around in them. Some are quite handsome, and can look like wonderful jewels.

  4. That’s a pleasant portrait of the bud, with the nascent pink nicely offsetting the shades of green. Perhaps you’ll also show a flower head coming apart as it goes to seed.

    Not having heard of Cirsium engelmannii,, I looked it up and noticed the USDA map shows it in only three Texas counties: Bexar, Robertson, and Brazos. That means I don’t have to worry I misidentified any of the thistles I took to be Texas thistles.

    1. I hadn’t heard of C. engelmannii either; I came across it on this very helpful page. Since I skirted Bexar county on my way home, I wondered if I might have seen it and not recognized it.

      I was surprised to find that I have a photo of Cirsium carolinianum in my files; I knew it looked different from most of the thistles I see, but I’d not spent any time trying to ID it. It’s fun to have another species to add to my list.

    1. I was going to say this one wouldn’t cause you any trouble, but it might cause a certain four-footed one who likes to sniff the ground a bit of a problem if he got too close. The nice thing about most of our native thistles is their size — they’re pretty easy to spot, and stay away from while we admire their color.

    1. I’ve found several species on beetles on these, as well as butterflies and such. As for the form of the bud, every time I look at it I think about what a beautiful vase it would make, done in glass.

    1. I really like this one. I found some just today, growing at the edge of a construction zone. They’re like sunflowers; they’re perfectly happy to set up shop in places we think ugly, and then get about blooming.

  5. How beautiful!

    Having some Scots in the family tree, I am rather partial to thistles. It’s the national flower!

    So lovely to look at and they are fabulous for birds and insects.

    1. Now that I think of it, I do remember seeing the thistle associated with Scotland. I found this interesting page and made a run at reading the excerpt from “A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle,” but I didn’t get very far! I did notice the mention of the musk thistle. That one’s invasive here, and not very well behaved — but isn’t it pretty?

  6. Great photos, Linda. I have a thistle of some sort happening along a pathway in my garden. I’m eager for opening blooms!

  7. ” benefit a variety of birds and insects throughout the summer”
    That’s why I leave them alone in parts of our garden – just not in the middle of our back yard.

    1. They’re as pretty as any of our wildflowers. They have quite a range of colors — maybe you should try a thistle-toned temperature blanket!

    1. It’s easy to focus on plants in bloom, but I’ve come to enjoy the buds — and seed heads — just as much. I think this is one of the most beautiful buds I’ve seen.

    1. Maybe you’ll have a chance to stop and have a second look. I love that you saw them by the railroad tracks — how thistle-like of them to pick a spot like that!

    1. I’d like to see the bud as a vase, done in glass. Wouldn’t that be pretty? It would take quite an artist to get all those prickles right.

    1. It’s fun to watch the birds pull the fluff, but I really get a kick out of the various beetles that roam the blooms, and share them with the butterflies and bees. That’s one advantage of thistle flowers; they’re big enough to support multiple visitors.

  8. I like thistle blossoms and these are two great shots, Linda.
    Years ago a big Canada or bull thistle sprouted up in a flower bed at my folk’s house – – my father took it into his head to feed and water the thing, which grew as big as a Christmas tree. When it bloomed, neighbors kept stopping by to admire the new flowering shrub and were surprised to find it was a spiny “weed.”

    1. What a great project your father undertook! I’ve read that some thistles can grow to a height of as much as six feet, even without a little TLC. I can imagine his became a bit of a show-stopper. They are beautiful. There are a couple I’ve never shown because they’re invasive and quite a problem, but our natives certainly equal them in attractiveness.

  9. I love this time of year and stop at every thistle patch I come across!

    Just standing among the plants for a moment will reveal all sorts of things visiting the blooms. As usual in nature, the closer you look, the more you see.

    Wonderful photographs of the spiny specimens.

    1. Large spreads of thistle certainly are attention getters: for us, and for the various insects that benefit from them. The family resemblance to the bachelor buttons I grew up with made them one of the first Texas wildflowers I noticed, long before I made a point of noticing wildflowers. I’m always surprised by the contrast between the soft flowers and all that spiny business that comes along with them, but it’s part of what makes the plant so interesting.

  10. I have a weakness for thistles, Linda, with alive and dead. They are always fun to photograph. I understand that the stalk is edible if you pellet. And how does one go about peeling a thistle? Carefully. –Curt

    1. I left your comment just as it appeared, since it gave me quite a smile. I couldn’t figure it out at first, and then it came to me: voice to text! Right? I think you meant ‘both alive and dead’ and ‘edible if you peel it.’ No wonder I keep coming accounts of really unfortunate voice to text transpositions!

      But, yes: I have read that thistles are edible. This foraging site has some of the details, including photos. It’s one of those plants that seems more trouble than its worth — like making jelly from prickly pear tunas. On the other hand, having those skills and knowledge may be handy when the supply chain collapses even more and we can’t find peanut butter or frozen pizza in the stores!

      1. Glad you are understanding, Linda. In the old days, when spell check systems simply marked a word as questionable instead of deciding what you were trying to say was much more acceptable from my perspective.

        The extent of my grazing in the woods is limited to pulling off a mint leaf on occasion and popping it into my mouth. Once, I harvested some wild onions and tossed them into my backpacking food. Nothing to write home about. I do enjoy learning about the food and medicine potential off plants, however.

        As for the future, I feel like I should take what money I have and hide it under my mattress, or buy ingots of silver.

        1. I just noticed that I omitted a word. I meant to say, “No wonder I keep coming across accounts…” I need to speak with my editor!

          One of the most interesting things I learned about horsemint is that it’s still commonly used as an ingredient in commercial mouthwashes. Who knew?

          As for money… for the present, I’m tending toward the Scarlett O’Hara approach to it all: at least, where the market, etc. is concerned. There’s not a thing I can do about it, and who knows where things will be in a year. In the meantime, I’m having to limit my roaming about on the weekends. At last, I may get my photo archives cleaned up and organized!

          1. Is that the “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” approach, Linda? The market is definitely a tough one to predict. As is the political situation. The news is so bad I’ve gone to skimming it rather than reading it in depth.

            Who knew about horsemint being used in mouthwash? Not me. But it does have an intense minty flavor, if my memory serve me right. A little goes a long way.

            1. It could be that, but it’s more the “I’ll think about that tomorrow” approach. Years ago I learned that worrying about things I don’t have a hope of changing is counterproductive at best. As the old song has it, there’s wisdom in accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative!

  11. I absolutely love that first photo of the yet to open bud with the beautifully soft light that really helps me appreciate the delicate nature of those little curled over petals (are they petals?). Thistle is a favorite of mine, though I have to admit to currently being ignorant of different species. I’ll have to research that. One visitor to our local thistle that I look forward to each year are the hummingbird moths. Fantastic little creatures.

    1. Those little curled-over thingies are bracts: part of the protection for the developing flower. I’ve never thought of hummingbird moths as thistle visitors, but it makes sense that they should be. Lucky you to see them! I’ve seen only a few in my life, and all of those have been spotted in friends’ gardens late in the day. I’ll have to watch for them, now that I know they might be around.

      Sorting out thistle species can be tough. It reminds me of trying to sort out varieties of prickly pear, and running into discussions of the color and length of spines. Sometimes, the genus does well enough!

    1. They are. One of the things that makes me smile every time is the softness of the flowers. As prickly as the leaves and stems might be, and even given the prickly base of the flowers, the blooms themselves are silky soft. It’s quite a contrast.

    1. They’re fairly easy to spot, thanks to their height. The only flowers that resemble them are the basket-flowers: at least, as far as I know. Sometimes I need that second look to know exactly what I’m seeing.

    1. A couple of our native species demand their space. Anyone who gets too close is certainly going to remember the experience — at least, until the next time!

  12. I’ve been watching a volunteer this tile that has grown along the pathway between our house and my SIL’s. Its first bloom opened today and I’m pretty sure it’s a Texas thistle! Thanks for this post as a heads-up; I just love it when something unexpected appears!

    1. Urgh! not *tile*, but thistle!! And as an added bonus (which I forgot to mention as I dashed off that first comment), there was a native bee already at work. Post to follow in the near future!

    2. It took me a minute to figure it out. I think you meant ‘this tile’ to be ‘thistle.’ Auto completion and voice to text aren’t always dependable!

      If anything is going to volunteer, these thistles surely are among the best. You may have found it first, but I’ll bet your bees won’t be far behind.

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