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)

After a Light Evening Shower

A brief autumn shower can often bring out the most beautiful glints in the low light of the October evening sun. I looked up from my desk and just caught the sun lighting my front garden.

echinops through blinds
Grabbed the camera and forgot the Venetian blinds were in the way!

Obviously, I took the shot first and thought afterwards. Learn from your mistakes, but I just keep repeating all the old habits.

echinops rain shower
Blinds now lifted, but the light has changed – ah disappointment

The transient nature of the scene may be frustrating, but it adds to the overall poignancy. And, as usual the camera (or maybe it’s the photographer!) doesn’t quite capture the full experience, but the gently fading echinops and eryngium seed heads dripping in the rain are still beautiful.

Mystery Day – Another Fine Dahlia

dark red dahliaPerhaps the 29th August could be named ‘Dahlia Day’ as here in East Anglia the dahlias are blooming their hearts out and the 29th doesn’t quite sound like the end of summer, yet – well, not so much as the 30th or 31st August. Of course, well tended and regularly deadheaded, or cut for the house, dahlias keeping on flowering until they get hit by the first hard frost.

Dahlia classic GiselleI like small-flowered decorative dahlias like Arabian Night or cacti type dahlias such as Nuit D’ete (lost last year due to relentless slug attack!). I also prefer single flowered varieties such as Giselle which has the bonus of attractive bronze foliage. My white dahlias were originally bought as part of a pink and white dahlia mix so think they might be ‘Perfection’ or ‘Nathalie’s Wedding’ not really sure which, but not a particularly good white and a bit stiff and starchy for me.

white dahlia

However, I didn’t buy this ‘dinner plate’ variety as I have previously found they are difficult to keep looking good and each bloom needs staking as they are so large, five to six inches across. But this music hall show off has just turned up in a packet of seeds that were supposed to be all very dark wine red, single flowers – and with some amusement I’ve found out it is called Mystery Day.

bi colour dahlia wine and white
Surprise variety from ‘Single, Dark Red Dahlias’ packet of seeds called Mystery Day!

All my dahlias are planted in large pots that I sink into the ground to mix with the rest of my August flowering plants. The dark red is used to give depth to the planting which is quite relaxed and informal.

Dahlia Arabian Night