The Thistle – Spiky Yet Inspirational

Some plants and flowers inspire us to paint or photograph them because they colourful. They are either bold and dramatic or perhaps pale and delicate. However, other plants are more about shape and the thistle is most certainly one of these. Spiky plants lend themselves to a pared back, silhouette-like rendering. The thistle has inspired many illustrators, artists and designers over the centuries. With its barbed flowers and serrated leaves the history of the thistle motif is seen in many decorative pieces from medieval manuscripts to Elizabethan textiles to Victorian wallpaper.

The ‘thistle’ inspiration for different thistle motifs is a spiky plant, but not always the same one. The Scotch thistle (onopordum acanthium) is probably the one that springs to mind, but the globe thistle (echinops) pops up from time to time. Both the Scotch and globe thistles are at least in the same botanical family Asteraceae. The other thistles that are popular as design inspiration are the sea hollies (eryngiums), but they are in the family Apiaceae.

Dürer Self Portrait holding thistle
‘Portrait of the Artist Holding a Thistle’ Albrecht Dürer, 1493, at the Louvre, Paris.
Holding sea holly (eryngium).

An early example of a thistle design is a Viking silver thistle brooch dating from the early 10th century now at the British Museum.

viking silver thistle brooch
Silver thistle brooch of ball type. Viking 10th century.
Length: 511 mm Diameter: 190 mm Height: 36 mm
Weight: 678 g

The Victorian, Owen Jones, who was an architect and designer, wrote ‘The Grammar of Ornament’ (published in 1856) outlining his theory of design. In his book he and his students attempted to extract and catalogue design motifs from historical sources across the centuries and produce a reference guide for flat patterning.


The thistle becomes more extensively used for ornamentation when monks began decorating medieval manuscripts with native flora. And, of course, the thistle is now known as the emblem of Scotland since it was adopted by James III in the fifteenth century.

My recent photograph of thistles in the front garden inspired me to paint a thistle scarf or two.

echinops eryngiums white hydrangea
Thistles – Globe Thistles (echinops) and Sea Holly (eryngium)

Author: agnesashe

Artisan, blogger and passionate East Anglian working from home.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s