Thursday, November 11, 2010

In my piece Introducing Species, native plants such as redanther wallaby grass and allocasuarina seeds are combined with two noxious weeds - scotch thistle (onopordium acanthium) and yorkshire fog (holcus lanatus). Introducing Species was made in 2007 and measures 240 X 330 X 200 mm.

Scotch thistle is a common weed in my suburb of Annandale so here is some of its history. Scotch thistle is actually an exotic plant in Britain, brought by the Romans. It became the national emblem of Scotland after Vikings trying to sneak into an encampment stumbled into the thistles and yelled in pain, alerting the Scots who were then able to fight them off. Centuries later it was taken to Australia as a garden plant but quickly hopped the garden fence and became so prolific that it was declared noxious in 1856. Changes in attitude to this plant are vividly brought to life in the reminiscences of Victorian pioneer Katherine McKell who recalled the first thistle to flower in her district sometime around the 1860s: "One day we came on a Scottish thistle, growing beside a log, not far from the stable sheds - a chance seed from the horse-fodder of course... This was carefully rolled in a piece of newspaper and put under a stone. In a few days after it was in a beautifully pressed condition, and was shown round with great pride. No one thought then that, some twenty years later, the thistle from Scoltand would have spread in the new land and become a nuisance, requiring a special Act in some shires and districts to enforce eradication on private properties."

Like many plants known as weeds, the scotch thistle has also been useful, for example, in the treatment of cancers and ulcers and the reduction of discharges of mucous membranes. The receptacle was eaten in earlier times like an artichoke. The cottony hairs on the stem were sometimes collected to stuff pillows. Oil from the seeds was used in Europe for burning and cooking.

So, weeds are not only plants for which we have not yet found a use but also plants which we no longer use! Perhaps we are on the cusp of change when it comes to our attitudes to weeds.

Beth Hatton

Sources: Feral Future by Tim Low (Ringwood, VIC, Viking, 1999) and

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