Tall Teasel, Prickly Roadside Weed


I’d be curious to know how many of you recognize this other-worldly plant from roadsides near your home. It’s found just about everywhere now, an alien from Europe, around since the 1700s. Of course, you’re not likely to notice it if your travels are at high speeds on interstates or even on highways.

But if your trips to and from work and home and the local store are, like ours, on back roads in the county, then you’re likely to have noticed this not-inconspicuous prickly plant–often dense, always tall (six feet or more) and stiff-looking, especially when the purple or white flowers have gone by.

Do NOT try to pick this one like you’d pluck a daisy. The spines along the stem are stout and sharp. I’m guessing cattle tend to leave it alone, accounting for it’s prevalence along pasture margins and fence rows–like where I found this patch.

In growth form, this plant’s flower type (or inflorescence, a term you’ve heard me use) is a HEAD–characteristic of the Aster family, and closely related. Flowers on the inflorescence begin maturing in the middle and “ripen” both upward and downward, which is unusual. The dried head persists, like a scepter–and I plan to cut some for our old butter churn that sits in the hallway upstairs, just because I like their shapes.

Speaking of form, there is a relationship here to function. A close relative of our common Dipsacus (species sylvestris) was used for its recurved spines “in textile processing, providing a natural comb for cleaning, aligning and raising the nap on fabrics, particularly wool.[1] It differs from the wild type in having stouter, somewhat recurved spines on the seed heads. The dried flower heads were attached to spindles, wheels, or cylinders, sometimes called teasel frames, to raise the nap on fabrics (that is, to tease the fibers). ”

Now that you’ve seen it, I’ll bet somebody will write to say “It’s everywhere and I’d missed it until you made me look.” Isn’t it interesting how, once we have our threshold of awareness lowered to something that was invisible to use, we see it often and close by?

Share this with your friends!

Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

Articles: 3013


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  1. I’m sure we saw this plant on our trip around the eastern U. S. last year, but I sure can’t recall where. I remember being amazed by those curved spines.

  2. My mother-in-law, Betsy, used to harvest these (she called them Devil’s Trash) in the Fall, along with other great finds from the woods. She spray-painted some gold and left others in their natural state. Some she just sprinkled with gold glitter. She created dried “flowers” of Fall things and I miss that. She and Dad were always in the mountains doing SOMETHING. They picked huckleberries, a back-breaking task; made wild-grape wine, included cat-o-nine-tails in the dried flower arrangements and kept them from “exploding” by coating them with spray glue. Some of these she sprayed gold; others were left in their natural rust brown. She knew where wild Japanese lanterns grew, where to find Trailing Arbutis and they gathered and dried Pennyroyal for tea in the winter. They gathered dandylions in the Spring and made salad and wine. These are the things grandparents can give to grandchildren, IF the grandchildren spend some time with them and just listen and observe.