Tuesday 30 July 2019

Melancholy Thistle: in Byron's Gin but is it a national symbol?

Melancholy thistle
Image: P Stroh
There are five thistles native to Scotland but nobody is 100% certain which one is the national symbol, found on coins, ancient and modern, and on heraldic devices. 

Four of them are in the genus Cirsium: spear thistle C. vulgare; marsh thistle C. palustre; creeping thistle C. arvense and melancholy thistle C. heterophyllum

The fifth is Carlina vulgaris, the carline thistle. 

The so-called Scotch thistle Ornopodium acanthium - which looks most like the stylised thistle seen on modern coins - is an archaeophyte. 

The Online Flora of the British Isles tells us that there is archaeological evidence for it in Britain from the Iron Age onwards but as this distribution map shows, it has a mostly southern distribution. 

Spear thistle
Image courtesy of Floral Images
That hasn't stopped it being, as Flora Celtica tells us, "widely accepted as the genuine article: Scotch thistles are planted every year in the gardens of Holyroodhouse in honour of the Queen's visit and a small patch, said to have been planted by Mary Queen of Scots, grows at the site of her execution in Fotheringay Castle".

For all that, the abundant and ubiquitous spear thistle is arguably a stronger candidate and looks more like the thistle seen on early coins. 

While there may be disagreement about which thistle deserves to be the Scottish national symbol, it's 100% certain which thistle is found in Byron's Gin! Not only is the lovely  melancholy thistle one of the ingredients, it actually gives its name to one of the two expressions of Byron's Gin. 

But whichever of the two expressions you opt for - either Melancholy Thistle or Bird Cherry - you can be sure that for every bottle sold, a contribution goes towards BSBI's Training programme which helps support the next generation of botanists as they hone their ID skills.      

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