Name: Carline Thistle (Carlina acaulis)
Otherwise known as: Throatbleed, Dwarf Thistle
Habitat: An herbaceous perennial member of the Compositae family, growing to about 30cm in poor pastureland and rocky slopes in Europe. This stemless thistle has rosettes of spiny leaves and a lilac-brown or white flower-head surrounded by silvery bracts.
What does it do: First referred to by Dioscorides as a treatment for tapeworm and snake-bite it later came to prominence in the dark ages. Originally this plant was called Carolina thistle after the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, of whom it is related that a horrible pestilence carried off 1,000 of his men, which greatly troubled the pious emperor, who thought he had offended God. Wherefore he prayed most earnestly, and that night had a dream wherein an angel appeared and shot an arrow and told him to regard the plant upon which it fell, for this would cure his army of the great pestilence. The herb – so heaven sent – was the Carline thistle. From the time of the Norman conquest until the late 17th century it was regarded as a powerful aphrodisiac and a cure for impotence. Gerard and Culpeper recommended it for spasms of the digestive tract, gall bladder and liver disorders, dropsy and urine retention.
Carline contains carlina oxide, carilene, inulin, bitters, phenol, palmitic acid, tannins and flavanoids; this indicates it is antispasmodic, antibiotic, antiseptic, anti-bacterial, carminative, digestive, diuretic, emetic in large doses, febrifuge, vermifuge and purgative. Modern herbalists use it for acne, eczema, throat and mouth ulcers, stimulating bile flow, prostate problems, herpes sores and oedema (accumulation of fluid beneath the skin or in a body cavity).
Carline thistle is one of those rare plants much loved by farmers because it acts as a hygrometer: the bracts close up at the approach of rain. It was also used to curdle milk. Veterinary surgeons recommend the plant as a stimulating appetizer for barren cows. The unopened flower buds are eaten in the same way and have a similar taste to globe artichokes – in Europe they are known as Hunter’s Bread.
There are a number of Carline sub-species growing in Cyprus and some may flower as late as October, they make an attractive table display because they retain their colour and form for months after cutting. Some people spray them and use them as Christmas decorations.