For anyone that missed it on the front page of the Guardian newspaper yesterday, the UK’s current poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy turned to plants to mark the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum. Starting with the Gaelic translation of ‘I love you’, this wonderful poet produced a poem that aptly reflects the levels of emotion that this historical event evoked. Duffy, appointed in 2009, is the first female and Scottish poet laureate.
Tha gaol agam ort *
A thistle can draw blood,
so can a rose,
where the river flows, shared currency,
across a border it can never know:
where, somewhen, Rabbie Burns might swim,
or pilgrim Keats come walking
out of love for him.
Aye, here’s to you,
cousins, sisters, brothers,
in your bold, brave, brilliant land:
the thistle jags our hearts,
take these roses,
from our bloodied hands.
*I love you
The thistle is a national emblem of Scotland, but what species is it referring to? Plants that have thistle in their title can come from a variety of different plant groups, although all within the family Asteraceae, and mostly confined to the section or tribe called Cynareae which includes the genera Carduus, Cirsium, and Onopordum. The debate as to which species it is seems to centre around two different plants: Onopordum acanthium commonly called the Cotton Thistle and Cirsium vulgare, commonly called the Spear Thistle. The problem is, as is often the case with common names, both have also been reported as being called the Scottish Thistle. Historical evidence – an early picture of the thistle as a Scottish symbol – does not really show spear-like leaves, yet there is doubt as to whether the Cotton Thistle would even have been present in Scotland during this period. So maybe it is neither of these two and other thistles present in Scotland such as Cirsium heterophyllum (Melancholy Thistle) or Carduus nutans (Musk Thistle) are in with a shout.
The red rose is the national flower of England. If you think thistles are confusing, just be thankful they are not roses as these are a veritable quagmire. As Clive Stace states in his book The Field Flora of the British Isles, roses are: “An extremely complex genus, much hybridized and selected in cultivation.” What this means is that native and naturalised species are quite mixed up, and we’ve lost track a bit of what plants come from what species. The red rose’s usage as a national emblem dates back to good old Henry VII who combined a red rose representing the House of Lancaster with a white one, representing the House of York. This created the Tudor Rose, used as a symbol of unity after the English civil wars of the 15th century now known as the ‘Wars of the Roses’. Clive Stace lists Rosa gallica as the Red Rose of Lancaster and Rosa x alba as the White Rose of York. Both of which are not considered to be truly native roses.