In Bloom: Tall Thistle

Tall thistle. Anne Holmes, artist

Thistles are a common weed problem for homeowners. Many of the thistles we encounter are invasive and can dominate our gardens. Tall thistle, however, is a native and is not only well-behaved but can be beneficial to the health of our natural areas. Cirsium altissimum provides an important habitat and food source for our native fauna. The nectar and pollen is an incredibly valuable food source to bees, butterflies, moths and other pollinators. Many insects feed on the leaves, stems, flowers and seeds, while some songbirds also feed on thistle seeds. These nectar sources help support pollinators year-round and can help to increase yields for many valuable crops. Although tall thistle has fewer spines than some thistles, it does provide some protection from hoofed, mammalian herbivores.

A member of the aster family, this is a biennial, or shortlived, perennial. During the first year, it sends up a low rosette of leaves. In the second year and thereafter, it develops stems with alternate leaves and grows to about three to eight feet tall. The upper surface of each leaf is green with white hairs, while the lower surface is covered with a dense mat of white, woolly hairs. The bloom period lasts a month to a month-and-a-half. The flower heads are usually fragrant. The root system has a taproot and spreads by reseeding itself. Cirsium altissimum can be planted in a variety of habitats, including wooded areas, swamps, meadows, tall grass prairies and in a variety of disturbed areas. In the Gardens, you can view this amazing plant in the Ulp Meadow, part of the Sycamore Meadow.

The Cherokee took an infusion of the leaves for pain and a warm infusion of the roots as an aid for indigestion. They used the bristles to make blow dart tails.

Upcoming Events at Asheville Botanical Gardens

Naturalist Walk with Garden Manager Jay Kranyik Sunday, August 19, 9–11:30 a.m. On this slow ramble through the Gardens, we will observe and discuss numerous aspects of our natural history. Botany, scientific nomenclature, reading the landscape, birds, insects, weather, plant compounds and other interesting subjects will be pondered in a fun, non-intimidating setting. This is an outdoor class. Bring rain jackets and umbrellas if needed, as well as a loupe and binoculars if you have them.

Hemlock Conservation and Restoration with Sara deFosset Sunday, August 26, 2–4 p.m. Sara deFosset is an outreach associate for the Ashevillebased Hemlock Restoration Initiative (HRI). HRI’s mission is to restore eastern and Carolina hemlocks to their native habitats throughout NC and to mitigate damage to hemlocks caused by infestation of the hemlock woolly adelgid ( More specifically, its goal is to work with a variety of partners and current restoration initiatives to ensure that eastern and Carolina hemlocks can resist the deadly hemlock woolly adelgid and survive to maturity on NC’s public and private lands.

Educational programs are $15 for members and $20 for non-members. Participants must pre-register and pre-pay for classes by calling 828.252.5190.

The Botanical Gardens, located at 151 W.T. Weaver Boulevard, is a nonprofit organization housing a collection of plants native to the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated and memberships are encouraged. Check for a variety of education programs this month.

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