Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

July 21, 2008

Don’t Touchel the Teasel

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:08 pm

  The Common Teasel is a plant that needs to be handled lightly, but not taken lightly. These towering plants are just beginning their flowering stage in late July. Their beautiful lavender flowers, artfully arranged on decorative cone-like heads, might seem like candidates for the flower vase but the potential arranger should be aware of the danger. Teasel plants bristle with stout spiny armor. Un-gloved hand contact is not recommended unless you are the kind that sleeps on a bed of nails. Take a good look at the photo above and you’ll see what I mean.

  Normally, I wouldn’t even hint at a suggestion that any wildflower should be cut and vased, but this plant is a tough customer. It is an alien invader hailing from Europe, Asia and Africa that has the real potential to choke out our native plants. So, go ahead and cut away and don’t forget those industrial strength gardening gloves. The dried seed heads are equally as attractive, by the way, and equally as spiny.   

  It would be a mistake to think that the teasel is a totally worthless plant. After all, we humans brought it to North America in the first place. Someone once thought it was worth the effort. The dried seed heads of Common Teasel, also known as Fuller’s Teasel, were used by textile manufacturers to treat woolen cloth. Strapped and stacked onto a wooden “teasel gigs,” multiple spiny heads were drawn by hand or attached to rotating cylinders.  The flexible, but stiff, spines firmly plucked at the cloth and raised the nap without tearing it. Steel or iron spikes were too harsh to perform this duty.

  This once helpful plant soon became an anachronism in human society as textile manufacturing advanced beyond the old ways.  The teasels (there are several species) did not disappear with the old ways and are now more common than ever. They are plants without purpose, however, and thus relegated to weed status.   

   One of the unique features displayed by this stout plant is the manner in which it blooms. While most plants with multiple flower-heads bloom in sequence from top to bottom or vice-versa, Teasels bloom from the middle out. The blooms begin as a purple belt (look above) which divides as the flowers work their way toward the ends. You can see (in this view) that the flowers in the center of this cluster are already turning brown as the newer marginal blooms emerge. If filmed in time lapse, the sequence would look like a sparkler that was lit in the middle (I used to do this all the time because it doubled the “spark” effect).

  Although the flowers are getting all the attention here, it is worth a downward glance to note how the leaves attach at the stem on this plant (see here). The leaves are stemless and opposite.  They join together to form a cup that often holds a pool of rain water. Dipsacus, the Greek name for the teasel group, means “to drink” and refers to this feature. I wouldn’t do what the name suggests.

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