The Great British Teasel

This morning the weather was spring-mild, warmed by the yellowest of sunshine so precious of this time of year. I have been out in the garden, pottering around with my secateurs and trowel, happily loosing track of time.

As the weather warms invertebrate life becomes active, and I can safely start to gather, cut back and ‘tidy up’ the old stems and dead growth from last year, which were left over winter to allow bugs such as ladybirds and lacewings to shelter and hibernate. It is tremendously exciting as I clear and chop, to uncover new shoots and rosettes of growth at the base of herbaceous perennials and seedlings triggered into greening by the progressing season.

It has not all been about cutting back and composting however; I have been bolstering this flush of new emerging growth by adding some young plants myself.

One of the stems I always leave over winter are the teasels. These tall plants are a native wildflower, commonly seen growing on waste ground, roadsides and wonderfully ‘scruffy’ field margins. In winter they are rigid brown stems topped by a spiky ‘drumstick’ head. This spiky top is packed with tiny seeds, and, held above the surrounding vegetation, is a magnet for hungry goldfinches in search of a meal. This winter I was thrilled to watch one of these colourful birds cling to the couple of teasel heads in my garden and delicately pick out the seeds with its beak, so this year I am determined for have plenty more!

Sadly I didn’t manage to capture a photo of my visiting goldfinches, but this image by Nicholas @ Vine House Farm shows how delightful these bright colourful birds are.
Image via www.vinehousefarm.co.uk

The seedlings I have been planting came from my Mum’s garden; some teasel heads in a cut flower display had self-seeded into the gravel of the garden path, and needed weeding out as in an unsuitable spot.

I am hoping we managed to extract enough root to allow them to reestablish in my garden soil, but they are robust plants and I have enough to allow for a few losses. Some compost (peat free) and watering should see them on their way.

Goldfinches wont get their turn to benefit from the brown spiked seed heads until the late autumn, but in the intervening months, the teasels will offer benefits to many other species too.

Beloved by birds and bees, and strikingly architectural too, the teasel can be a great wild garden plant, but where does it come from (aside from my mums garden!), and how does it grow?

– brushes and combs – Venus’ basin – church broom – fairies broom – fuller’s herb –
card weed – gypsy’s comb – barber’s brush – johnny-prick-the-finger – donkeys thistle –

The various ‘folk names’ for the teasel, tell us a lot about its characteristics, and also its use and relationship with our own social history. Scientifically named Dipsacus fullonum, it is suggested that the name ‘teasel’ comes from the anglo-saxon ‘taesan’ meaning ‘for cleaning cloth’. Traditionally, teasels were vital to the wool and cloth producing industry, as the spiked seed heads were used as a tool. Natural material such as wool, was fitted into a wooden frame, and the teasel used as a kind of comb to clean, align, and raise the knap of fibres or in other words, “to tease the fibres”. This work was carried out by people who were called ‘fullers’, a term echoed in the botanical name ‘fullonum‘. By the 20th century, teasels were largely replaced by uniform, longer lasting, toothed metal cards, and ‘carding’ remains a vital procedure in the process of producing materials for clothes and textiles on an industrial scale. Since their fall from favour as a useful tool, teasels became considered a ‘weed’, unpalatable as a foodstuff to most livestock (although you’ll often spot the sharp seed heads placed strategically on chairs and seats in National Trust houses to dissuade visitors from taking a pew!)

Teasel heads, towards the end of their flowering period in late summer.
Photo taken in the garden of Poplar Cottage @ Weald and Downland Living Museum, Sussex. https://www.wealddown.co.uk/

Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum)

  • Height up to 2m
  • Biennial (two year life cycle)
  • Native to Britain
  • Common & widespread (Rarer in Scotland and Northern Ireland)
  • Flower July-August
  • Seed heads stand through autumn & winter
  • Hardy
  • Moist soils – roadsides & railway embankments, damp field margins, riverbanks, waste ground and gardens.

Teasels are a biennial, meaning they have a two year lifecycle. My plants are a year old; they spent the first year forming a rosette of green coarse leaves held close to the ground. In their second year, this clump will send up a number of tall, slim, spiny stems, topped by an oval flowerhead. Soft green at first, these flower heads are protected by a skirt of long bracts. leaves on the stem are arranged in opposite pairs, forming a well at their base. This well collects and holds rainwater in a pool where the leaves join the stem. Folklore stories suggest that the water collected in these wells, has healing properties for skin, eyes, warts etc and has lead to references to Venus and baths in in the plants many names. In fact, the Romans called the teasel ‘Labrum Veneis’ or ‘Lip of Venus’.

When the flower heads of teasels bloom, the flowers open in successive rings of purple, starting at the middle widest point of the oval head, spreading both up and down the structure as each ring fades and opens, until it reaches the base and tip. Bees are particularly attracted to teasel flowers, but hoverflies and butterflies will also taken advantage of this long provision of nectar. Once the flowering cycle is complete, the head will dry, and by autumn it will be a sharp ‘hedgehog’ of brown spikes filled with approximately 2000 tiny seeds. The individual plant will die off after its flowering year, but successive seedlings will continue to grow close by each year.

The long history and story of the great British teasel is fascinating, and goes to show that there is often plenty to discover behind any common wayside plant. I’m looking forward to watching these teasels grow in my garden and seeing what wildlife they attract – from drinking water for birds and insects in their leaf joint wells, to pollen and nectar rich flowers for bees and butterflies, and of course those seed-packed autumn structures to feed the goldfinches. Whether you call them brushes-and-combs, fuller’s herb, Venus’ basin or Dipsacus fullonum, teasels are a plant that have definitely earned a place in any wildlife garden.

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