Thorny Tales: Decoding the Symbolism of Thistle Flowers

Thistles or Cirsium may be best known for their showy purple flowers and pink flowers, in addition to their prickly foliage. But these perennials are also important for pollinators, as well as a source of food and folk medicine. The national symbol of Scotland, thistles play important roles in legend and folklore. Here, we’ll take you through everything you need to know about thistle flower meaning and symbolism, their history and origins, plus learn about their cultural significance today.

Ultimate Guide to Thistle Flower Meaning (Cirsium)

Thistle Flower Meaning – The Essentials

To the Victorians, a gift of thistle flowers served as a warning against unwanted meddling. Known as the flower of intrusion, thistles also play symbolic roles in other cultures. As the national flower of Scotland, thistles stand for bravery, strength, and luck, while in France, thistles were believed to offer protection against witchcraft.

Etymological Meaning

The name Cirsium comes from the Greek word for swollen veins, or kirso. Thistles were once thought to cure vein ailments.

The Meaning, Symbolism, and Cultural Significance of Thistle Flowers

The Meaning, Symbolism, and Cultural Significance of Thistle Flowers

An Iconic Flower of Scotland

Thistles bloom in a range of colors, including purple, pink, white, yellow, and magenta. The thistle features heavily in folklore, especially in Scotland.

There, the thistle is the national flower and is steeped in meaning and legend. In the 1200s, Norway’s King Haakon decided he would conquer the Scots. One dark night, his army landed on the Coast of Largs. The Norse warriors took off their shoes so they could sneak up on the sleeping Scotsmen.

But this turned out to be a strategic error… in the darkness, a Norse warrior’s barefoot landed on a prickly thistle. He shrieked in pain, waking the Scottish Clansmen in time to thwart the attack. Since then, the flowers have been associated with good luck, bravery, courage, and strength.

The thistle was named the Scottish national flower by Alexander the III. In centuries since, it’s appeared on coins and the Royal Arms of Scotland. Scotland’s Order of Chivalry is known as “The Most Ancient and Noble Order of the Thistle. Members sport gold chains with links in the shape of flowers, and their motto is nemo me impune lacessit, orno-one provokes me with impunity.”

Thistle Flowers and French Legends

Thistle Flowers and French Legends

Thistles play a special role in French legend, as well. In the Lorraine region, the thistle has long been a symbol of the Virgin Mary, where the plant’s white sap signifies mother’s milk. The Duchy of Lorraine adopted the thistle as their royal symbol after victory in a battle against Burgundy. Today, the flower symbolizes the city of Nancy and appears on the city’s football team jerseys.

In folklore, the thistle was believed to offer protection from witches. The French believed that witches couldn’t look directly at the sun. Since the thistle’s flowers face the light directly, the blossoms were thought to represent the sun’s protection against witchcraft.

Perhaps the thistle’s prickly reputation influenced its symbolism in the language of flowers. To the Victorians, a gift of thistle flowers stood for intrusion and signified a warning against unwanted meddling.

Thistle Flowers in Art and Literature

Thistles have been featured in art and literature through the years. Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid wrote of the thistle in his epic poem A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle. The American artist John Singer Sergeant painted thistles in the mid-1900s, and the flowers featured in Ansel Adams’s work.

Suitable Gifting Occasions for Thistle Flowers

Suitable Gifting Occasions for Thistle Flowers

Thistles have long been associated with bravery, courage, and strength. Include thistle flowers in a floral gift to someone who’s fighting a battle, who has overcome adversity, or who has shown courage and triumphed.

Despite their prickly stems, thistle flowers have a delicate appearance. They add natural, organic beauty to floral designs for weddings and other special events.

Thistle Flower FAQs:

What does the thistle flower represent?

In the Victorian language of flowers, the thistle represents instruction and means, “Your meddling is unwanted.” To the Scots, the thistle stands for courage, strength, and bravery.

Is a thistle good luck? 

In Scottish lore, the spiny thistle thwarted an attack from an enemy army with its prickly spines. Since then, it’s been associated with good luck, strength, and courage.

Is the thistle the flower of Scotland? 

The thistle is the flower of Scotland, thanks to playing a key historical role in victory over enemy invaders. The flower features in royal heraldry, on sport team logos, and as the symbol of the elite Order of the Thistle.

What does a thistle mean spiritually? 

The thistle has connections to the Virgin Mary. In regions of France, the plant’s sap is associated with mother’s milk and was once believed to offer powerful protection against witchcraft.

Is thistle poisonous to humans? 

Thistle is not toxic to humans. In fact, it has many culinary and medical uses and is an important plant for pollinator species such as bees, butterflies, and birds.

Wrap-up

The thistle grows across temperate climates, gracing meadows, roadsides, and boggy areas with its delicate purple, pink, white, and yellow flowers. In some regions, the plants are seen as weeds, while in other cultures, they signify strength, courage, and victory. In the language of flowers, the thistle symbolizes unwanted intrusion and means “stop meddling.” When grown in the garden or given as floral gifts, thistle flowers provide color and texture with their feathery blossoms and spiny foliage.


Contributing Editor | linsay@petalrepublic.com | Full Bio

Linsay is an American copywriter based in the Pacific Northwest with a background in academic writing and research. Linsay holds Master's degree in both Anthropology and Library and Information Sciences and has written for numerous national and international publications including USA Today, SFGATE, Hunker, and The Bump across an array of topics in the gardening, green living, and travel sectors. When she's not writing, you'll usually find Linsay reading, kayaking, sailing, snowboarding, or working in her garden.

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