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Melancholy Thistle

Cirsium heterophyllum

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Plant Profile

Flowering Months:
Asteraceae (Daisy)
Also in this family:
Alpine Blue Sow-thistle, Alpine Cotula, Alpine Fleabane, Alpine Saw-wort, Annual Ragweed, Annual Sunflower, Argentine Fleabane, Autumn Hawkbit, Autumn Oxeye, Beaked Hawksbeard, Beggarticks, Bilbao Fleabane, Black Knapweed, Black-eyed Susan, Blanketflower, Blue Fleabane, Blue Globe-thistle, Bristly Oxtongue, Broad-leaved Cudweed, Broad-leaved Ragwort, Brown Knapweed, Butterbur, Buttonweed, Cabbage Thistle, Canadian Fleabane, Canadian Goldenrod, Carline Thistle, Chalk Knapweed, Chamois Ragwort, Changing Michaelmas Daisy, Chicory, Chinese Mugwort, Chinese Ragwort, Coltsfoot, Common Blue Sow-thistle, Common Cat's-ear, Common Cudweed, Common Daisy, Common Dandelion, Common Fleabane, Common Goldenrod, Common Groundsel, Common Michaelmas Daisy, Common Mugwort, Common Ragwort, Common Wormwood, Coneflower, Confused Michaelmas Daisy, Corn Chamomile, Corn Marigold, Cornflower, Cotton Thistle, Cottonweed, Creeping Thistle, Daisy Bush, Dwarf Cudweed, Dwarf Thistle, Early Goldenrod, Eastern Groundsel, Eastern Leopardsbane, Elecampane, English Hawkweed, Fen Ragwort, Feverfew, Field Fleawort, Field Wormwood, Fox and Cubs, French Tarragon, Gallant Soldier, Garden Lettuce, Giant Butterbur, Glabrous-headed Hawkweed, Glandular Globe-thistle, Glaucous Michaelmas Daisy, Globe Artichoke, Globe-thistle, Goat's Beard, Golden Ragwort, Golden Samphire, Goldilocks Aster, Grass-leaved Goldenrod, Great Lettuce, Greater Burdock, Greater Knapweed, Grey-headed Hawkweed, Guernsey Fleabane, Hairless Blue Sow-thistle, Hairless Leptinella, Hairy Michaelmas Daisy, Harpur Crewe's Leopardsbane, Hawkweed Oxtongue, Heath Cudweed, Heath Groundsel, Hemp Agrimony, Highland Cudweed, Hoary Mugwort, Hoary Ragwort, Hybrid Knapweed, Intermediate Burdock, Irish Fleabane, Jersey Cudweed, Jerusalem Artichoke, Lance-leaved Hawkweed, Lavender-cotton, Leafless Hawksbeard, Least Lettuce, Leopardplant, Leopardsbane, Leptinella, Lesser Burdock, Lesser Hawkbit, Lesser Sunflower, London Bur-marigold, Magellan Ragwort, Marsh Cudweed, Marsh Hawksbeard, Marsh Ragwort, Marsh Sow-thistle, Marsh Thistle, Meadow Thistle, Mexican Fleabane, Milk Thistle, Mountain Everlasting, Mouse-ear Hawkweed, Musk Thistle, Narrow-leaved Cudweed, Narrow-leaved Hawkweed, Narrow-leaved Michaelmas Daisy, Narrow-leaved Ragwort, New England Hawkweed, New Zealand Holly, Nipplewort, Nodding Bur-marigold, Northern Hawksbeard, Norwegian Mugwort, Oxeye Daisy, Oxford Ragwort, Pearly Everlasting, Perennial Cornflower, Perennial Ragweed, Perennial Sow-thistle, Perennial Sunflower, Pineapple Mayweed, Plantain-leaved Leopardsbane, Ploughman's Spikenard, Plymouth Thistle, Pontic Blue Sow-thistle, Pot Marigold, Prickly Lettuce, Prickly Sow-thistle, Purple Coltsfoot, Rayed Tansy, Red Star Thistle, Red-seeded Dandelion, Red-tipped Cudweed, Robin's Plantain, Roman Chamomile, Rough Cocklebur, Rough Hawkbit, Rough Hawksbeard, Russian Lettuce, Safflower, Salsify, Saw-wort, Scented Mayweed, Scentless Mayweed, Sea Aster, Sea Mayweed, Sea Wormwood, Seaside Daisy, Shaggy Mouse-ear Hawkweed, Shaggy Soldier, Shasta Daisy, Shetland Mouse-ear Hawkweed, Shrub Ragwort, Sicilian Chamomile, Silver Ragwort, Slender Mugwort, Slender Thistle, Small Cudweed, Small Fleabane, Smooth Cat's-ear, Smooth Hawksbeard, Smooth Sow-thistle, Sneezeweed, Sneezewort, Spear Thistle, Spotted Cat's-ear, Spotted Hawkweed, Sticky Groundsel, Stinking Chamomile, Stinking Hawksbeard, Tall Fleabane, Tall Mouse-ear Hawkweed, Tansy, Thin-leaved Sunflower, Treasureflower, Trifid Bur-marigold, Tuberous Thistle, Tyneside Leopardplant, Viper's Grass, Wall Lettuce, Welsh Groundsel, Welted Thistle, White African Daisy, White Butterbur, White Buttons, Willdenow's Leopardsbane, Winter Heliotrope, Wood Burdock, Wood Ragwort, Woody Fleabane, Woolly Thistle, Yarrow, Yellow Chamomile, Yellow Fox and Cubs, Yellow Oxeye, Yellow Star Thistle, Yellow Thistle, York Groundsel
Life Cycle:
Maximum Size:
120 centimetres tall
Ditches, fens, fields, grassland, marshes, meadows, riverbanks, riversides, roadsides, swamps, wasteland, waterside, woodland.

Purple, many petals
Purple flowers between 3 and 5cm across. The flowers are normally solitary. The bracts are usually hairless and purple-tipped. They are broad to lanceolate in shape. 5 stamens.
A long, blunt, flattish achene, up to 5mm long. The fruit is tipped by white, feathery hairs.
A clump-forming, perennial herb with lance-shaped, alternate, green leaves, narrowing towards the stem. The toothed or untoothed, upper leaves clasp their stems. The basal rosette of leaves are sometimes pinnately lobed. The leaves are hairless above and covered in a white, cottony down below. The leaf edges are softly prickly. The leaves reach 20cm in length. The stout stems are grooved and are neither winged or spiny. The stems are also cottony.
Other Names:
Curly Head, Various-leaved Thistle.
Frequency (UK):
Occasionally seen  

Similar Species

Other Information


Cirsium heterophyllum, also known as the various-leaved thistle, is a perennial herb native to Europe and Asia. It is typically found in grassland, meadows, and disturbed areas such as roadsides and pastures. The plant has a tall, spiky stem and produces large, pink or purple flower heads. Like other thistles, it is considered a weed and invasive in many countries. It can outcompete native vegetation and reduce forage for livestock. Control methods include mechanical removal, grazing, and the use of herbicides. It has been traditionally used for medicinal purposes, such as for treating liver and gallbladder complaints. Additionally, the stem and roots of the plant can be eaten and used as a vegetable.


Melancholy Thistle (Cirsium heterophyllum) is a beautiful and unique species of thistle that is native to Europe, Asia and North Africa. It is a biennial or perennial plant that is known for its distinctive purple-blue flowers and its prickly leaves. The plant is also known by several other names, including the variable thistle and the soft thistle, which refer to its variable leaf shape and the relatively soft texture of its leaves.

One of the most striking features of Melancholy Thistle is its blooms. The flowers are large and showy, with a central disk surrounded by up to 20 radiating purple-blue petals. The plant typically blooms in the summer, and the flowers are a popular source of nectar for many species of bees, butterflies, and other insects. The plant is also an important food source for some species of birds, such as the goldfinch, which feeds on the seeds.

Aside from its ornamental value, Melancholy Thistle also has a number of uses in traditional medicine. In some cultures, the plant is believed to have pain-relieving properties and is used to treat a variety of ailments, including headaches, rheumatism, and digestive problems. In addition, the plant has been used as a mild laxative and as a remedy for kidney and bladder problems.

Despite its many benefits, Melancholy Thistle is also considered an invasive species in some parts of the world. The plant is highly adaptable and can grow in a wide range of habitats, including meadows, pastures, and disturbed areas. In some cases, it can outcompete native species and disrupt ecosystems, which has led to efforts to control its spread in some areas.

Overall, Melancholy Thistle is a fascinating and beautiful plant that is both valuable and challenging in equal measure. Whether you are a gardener, a naturalist, or simply someone who appreciates the beauty of the natural world, this species is well worth learning more about. If you are interested in growing Melancholy Thistle in your own garden, be sure to choose a location with well-drained soil and full sun, and be prepared to control its spread, if necessary. With proper care, this species can be a beautiful and rewarding addition to any garden.

The Melancholy Thistle is a plant that is often overlooked despite its beauty and versatility. This is partly due to the stigma associated with its prickly leaves and stems, which can make it difficult to handle or even approach. However, with a little care and patience, it is possible to appreciate this plant in all its glory, without being poked or scratched.

One of the key features of Melancholy Thistle is its variable leaf shape, which is why it is also known as the variable thistle. The leaves can be oval, lance-shaped, or even feathery, depending on the plant's environment and growth stage. The leaves are also covered in soft, white hairs, which gives the plant a delicate appearance and provides protection from predators.

Another remarkable aspect of Melancholy Thistle is its longevity. It is a hardy plant that can survive for many years in the right conditions, making it an ideal choice for gardeners who want to create a long-lasting and attractive display. In addition, the plant can produce large amounts of seed, which can be used to grow new plants, or to attract wildlife to your garden.

When it comes to cultivating Melancholy Thistle, it is important to choose a location that provides adequate light, as well as well-drained soil. The plant can also benefit from the addition of organic matter, such as compost, to the soil, which will help to improve its overall health and vigor. Additionally, the plant should be watered regularly, especially during periods of drought, to prevent it from becoming too stressed.

Aside from its ornamental and medicinal uses, Melancholy Thistle also has cultural significance. In some parts of Europe, the plant is associated with mourning and sadness, which is why it is sometimes called the "melancholy thistle". This is due to its somber purple-blue flowers and prickly leaves, which are thought to symbolize sorrow and grief.

In traditional folklore, Melancholy Thistle is also believed to have protective properties. It is said that the plant can protect homes and gardens from evil spirits and negative energies, making it an important addition to many spiritual and magical practices. Additionally, the plant is believed to have spiritual significance in some cultures, and is used in rituals and ceremonies to connect with the spirits of the earth and sky.

Another interesting aspect of Melancholy Thistle is its relationship with wildlife. The plant is a major food source for many species of bees and butterflies, which feed on its nectar and pollen. In addition, the seeds are a valuable food source for many species of birds, including the goldfinch and the linnet. This makes Melancholy Thistle a valuable addition to any wildlife-friendly garden, as it helps to support biodiversity and conserve local ecosystems.

Overall, Melancholy Thistle is a versatile and fascinating plant that is worth exploring in greater detail. Whether you are interested in its ornamental, medicinal, cultural, or wildlife-related qualities, this plant is a valuable and unique species that has much to offer.

In terms of its medicinal properties, Melancholy Thistle has been used for centuries as a natural remedy for a variety of ailments. For example, the plant's roots and leaves have been used as a tonic to help improve overall health and well-being, as well as to treat digestive and liver problems. Additionally, the plant's leaves and stems have been used as a natural diuretic, to help flush out toxins from the body.

In traditional herbal medicine, Melancholy Thistle is also believed to have anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties, making it a useful treatment for conditions such as arthritis, gout, and rheumatism. Furthermore, the plant's leaves and stems are rich in antioxidants, which can help to protect the body from damage caused by free radicals, and may also help to reduce the risk of certain types of cancer.

In addition to its medicinal properties, Melancholy Thistle is also valued for its ornamental qualities. The plant's tall, spiky stems and large, showy flowers make it an eye-catching addition to any garden, and its variable leaf shape adds interest and texture. Whether planted in a wildflower meadow, in a border, or in a large container, Melancholy Thistle is a beautiful and attention-grabbing plant that is sure to make a statement in any outdoor space.

To get the most out of Melancholy Thistle, it is important to plant it in the right location. The plant prefers a sunny position and well-drained soil, and should be protected from strong winds, which can damage its delicate flowers and leaves. Additionally, the plant should be regularly pruned to prevent it from becoming too overgrown, and to encourage the growth of fresh new leaves and stems.

In conclusion, Melancholy Thistle is a plant that is rich in history, cultural significance, and natural beauty. Whether you are interested in its medicinal properties, ornamental qualities, or wildlife-related benefits, this plant is sure to captivate and delight. So if you are looking to add a new and interesting plant to your collection, consider the Melancholy Thistle, and discover the many wonders that this species has to offer.


Melancholy Thistles filmed at Smardale in the Yorkshire Dales on the 16th June 2023.


Music credits
Go Not Gently by Audionautix is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license.

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Distribution Map

Reproduced by kind permission of the BSBI.

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