The spear thistle is perhaps the most likely candidate for the Scottish national emblem (5). It is a tall thistle, with a long tap-root(2). Young plants form rosettes of bristly leaves that have a downy upper surface; rosettes persist for around 1 year before flowering stems are produced (4). These flowering stems are cottony, deeply furrowed and have spiny 'wings', they support deeply lobed and spiny leaves (2). The large purple flower heads are 3-5 cm long and 2-5 cm across and are arranged in clusters (4).
The spear thistle is a perennial species. Seedlings appear from autumn to April and they do not begin to flower until their second year of growth (4). Flowers are produced from July to September (6), and are pollinated by long-tongued bees, hover-flies and butterflies (2). After the seeds have been produced, the flowering stems die back (4).
Extremely widespread, being found throughout Britain. The listing of this species as a noxious weed subject to control does not seem to have affected its range; indeed it seems to be on the increase in man-made habitats (3). It occurs throughout the rest of Europe, reaching as far north as Scandinavia. It is also known in western Asia and North Africa, and has been introduced to North America and Chile (2).
This thistle thrives in a wide variety of habitats, such as rough grassland, overgrazed pasture, dunes, and sea-cliffs. It also occurs in fertile habitats subject to disturbance, including waste ground, arable fields, spoil heaps, and on burned areas of woodland (3). As it has been discovered in pre-Neolithic deposits, it seems that spear-thistle does not require human disturbance to prosper (1).
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