You know, and I know, that I've been working hard to preserve the native forbs by allowing vast areas of my prairie lawn to go unmown this summer. Actually, my actions might be better described as "hardly working", since it takes more effort to mow than to let the prairie grow. And I've been showing off my native wildflowers in various posts, like here, and here.
Regarding those native wildflowers, however, I draw the line at allowing the thistles to grow unchecked in the yard. The spiky little gray-green creature at the right is Wavy-Leaf Thistle (Cirsium undulatum), a less-than-lovable member of the Asteraceae (or Sunflower) family. It is found throughout Kansas in dry prairies, disturbed areas, and over-grazed pastures. Hmmm, "over-grazed pastures" is also a good description for a prairie mowed every two weeks or so for several years, isn't it? Wavy-Leaf Thistle is not the only thistle I've found in the area; Bull Thistle or Cirsium vulgare is also found here, but the latter is not native and is listed as a noxious weed. Wavy-Leaf Thistle is, however, the most prevalent thistle in my yard, and even if Native Americans did view it as a food source, I do not.
So, I'm dispatching them with a machete wherever they crop up. Yes, I am a serial thistle killer. There's just something so satisfying about swinging that big knife blade at my feet and managing to lop off a thistle at the base while avoiding my shins and toes. It's almost a primeval satisfaction, born out of man's necessity to make his immediate environment more comfortable. And I also know a secret about cutting thistles, a secret born of experience and farm lore, that I'll pass on to you.
Thistle-cutting, in my case, simply brings back memories of childhood. I spent a fair portion of my youth on the seat of an old Massey-Ferguson 135 tractor with a "bush-hog" attached to the power takeoff. Because controlling them caused me sunburn and sweat, thistles and ironweed were my childhood enemies, and I took great pleasure in chopping them down to size several times a summer. I remember distinctly a five acre section of our cow pasture that had become overgrown with Bull Thistle to the point where neither people nor cows could walk it unscathed. My paternal grandfather, a farmer from the time of horse-draw plows, related to my father that they should be cut down every year on June 21st, so for several years on the 21st of June, I'd be found mowing that pasture, rain or shine, usually in the boiling sun. And lo and behold, the thistles declined over about five years until nary a one could be found.
Even back then, young but with an interest in science and nature, I recognized that the real secret was that on or around June 21st every year, the thistles were open in flower but none had yet gone to seed. And there was not enough time left in the hot summer for a 3-4 foot tall thistle to grow back up and flower and seed again. So the real trick was simply keeping these behemoths from procreating until they dwindled, an agricultural and military technique that has worked on many different native species time and again over the centuries.
So, I apologize to all the native plant purists, but my ingrained training will not allow me to let the thistles be thistles. I'm also, of course, preempting Mrs. ProfessorRoush, who might have reluctantly consented to allow a little Echinacea and Black-Eyed Susans to proliferate, but who might become more adamant about removing the thistles. To those of you who want to join the anti-thistle brigade, take my grandfather's advice and cut them to the ground in late June or early July (or exactly on June 21st to honor his memory with me). Your pastures may not be purely native, but your bare legs will thank you for it, nonetheless.