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Wednesday 20 June 2012: Marsh thistle

I'm afraid I've been absent for a few days - life has been so hectic that there's been no time for blipping. I will get around to filling in the missing days eventually - despite everything I've just about managed to take a daily photograph, though on Saturday I very nearly failed.

Today has been spent at Wicken Fen training a group of Wildlife Trust staff to recognise the main fen-meadow and tall-fen communities found in Cambridgeshire, and how to identify many of their component plants. They were a lovely group, but I always find this sort of event quite draining, as it requires a lot of sustained attention - not something I'm always good at!

We saw many beautiful plants, including a range of marsh orchids, meadow thistle and marsh fern, but I didn't really have the chance to take any photographs. This marsh thistle was snapped before everyone else arrived, but is appropriate as it's a constant species in one of the main fen meadow communities on the site.

It's a herbaceous biennial or perennial thistle which reaches up to 2 metres in height. The strong stems have few branches and are covered in small spines. In its first year the plant grows as a dense rosette, at first with narrow, entire leaves with spiny, dark purple edges; later, larger leaves are lobed. In the subsequent years the plant grows a tall, straight stem, the tip of which branches repeatedly, bearing a candelabra of dark purple flowers, 10-20 millimetres with purple-tipped bracts.

Apparently it's used fairly commonly as a seasonal wild vegetable [horta] in Cyprus after the prickles have been removed. Earlier this season I met a Cypriot in Gamlingay Wood who was extolling its virtues as a salad plant, but I still don't think it looks that appetising, and removing all the prickles looks decidedly fiddly!


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