Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Thorn of Plenty

My husband and I have started walking in the mornings. Both of us need this (retirees can get too relaxed) and the roadsides have been beautiful. The first roadside picture is a thistle with a bee.
This photo is of an Eastern Black Swallowtail on a roadside thistle.

A Monarch Butterfly sipping nectar on a thistle.

A Buckeye Butterfly perched on a thistle.

A Silver Spotted Skipper having a sweet morning snack.
A patch of drying thistle plants and the thistledown or bristles on the fruits.

Most thistles are categorized as a "noxious weed" in the United States. The Canadian Thistle bares that term but oddly the Bull Thistle does not. The major difference to the casual observer is the Canadian has a smooth stalk and the Bull has a very prickly stalk. A big difference for weed control is the Canadian will send out suckers and native thistle will not.
I allowed a thistle to grow in a flower garden one year. Actually, it was the second year since this thistle is biennial. The flower heads are quite beautiful and attract butterflies and bees better than any butterfly bush or the butterfly weed.
This above day of walking netted not only photos of the above insects but I saw a Tiger Swallowtail and several other orange butterflies that didn't stay still long enough to identify.
Gold Finches line their nests with the thistledown. The Gold Finch is one of the last birds to nest and lay eggs in this climate. It coincides with the September dieing down of the thistle.
My thistle had beautiful magenta flowers and was continuously covered with butterflies and bees. In the Fall, it did indeed attract Gold Finches. The perfect plant. . .umm, not quite.
Each little thistledown carries a tiny lightweight seed on the wind. It was years before I was able to get rid of the many thistles that sprouted in so many wrong places. Pulling even a small new plant requires gloves or Roundup. And don't even think of walking in the lawn barefoot.
One of the nature-provided benefits of this year's very wet spring and summer is country roadsides didn't get mowed until recently - if at all. This provided the plants for caterpillars, chrysalises and butterflies to use as foodstuff. It allowed them a complete lifestyle.
I won't get into a debate on mowing roadsides because there are pros and cons on both sides of the subject. In the end the property owner has the right to mow or not. It is often an issue related to some of the following:
  • Beautification (and the owner's desired look.)
  • Conservation of gasoline.
  • Thistle will displace farm crops, pasture grasses and native plants.
  • Erosion controls using heavy vegetation to hold the soil in place.
  • Stop the spread of weeds by cutting before they set seeds.
  • Providing a wildlife sanctuary (both insect and animal.)
  • Providing a natural habitat for native Illinois wildflowers and grasses.
But, I'm certainly glad we had a year without mowing because it's been a year of more butterflies than I remember in recent history. This has been especially fortunate since much of the migrating butterflies have had their southern habitats destroyed by nature or man.
On the flip side: The next several years will most likely see an increase of thistle in pastures and roadsides. It is difficult to kill in those situations. If burning is used, it actually provides a better place for thistles. Grazing cattle should be used after burns. Cattle may eat thistle if allowed to graze on the flower buds or after a frost when the plant produces a lot of sugar.
For large applications, some farm operations are introducing several thistle specific weevils. Some experimentation of 25% vinegar solutions have worked but for large thistle infestations, your local extension office should have up-to-date control information.
As for me, I'll admire the current year's butterfly benefits but continue my battle against thistle in the yard.

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