Field of Science

Thistle Be The One (Taxon of the Week: Carduoideae)

The cardoon Cynara cardunculus with humans to scale. Photo from here.

The composite-flowering plants of the Asteraceae are one of the largest (23,000 species, according to Wikipedia) and most distinctive plant groups out there - even a complete botanical dunce like yours truly can usually recognise an example of Asteraceae. Asteraceae include such plants as daisies and chrysanthemums in which the "flower" is in fact a large number of tiny flowers all pressed together, hence the old name for the family of "Compositae". Different authors have proposed different classifications within Asteraceae over the years, but twelve subfamilies were recognised by Panero & Funk (2008). The subfamily Carduoideae as recognised by these authors includes the three tribes Dicomeae, Tarchonantheae and Cardueae (earlier authors had used the name to cover a broader paraphyletic assemblage, or restricted it to include only Cardueae). The genus Oldenburgia may be included in Tarchonantheae or it may be placed in its own separate tribe (Funk et al., 2009). No unique morphological features characterise this subfamily (though most species have a ring of papillae on the style underneath the stigmatic branches), but it is well supported molecularly.

The tribes Dicomeae and Tarchonantheae are primarily found in Africa and Madagascar (two species of Dicomeae and one of Tarchonantheae are found in Asia). The seventeen species of Tarchonantheae (including Oldenburgia) are all shrubs or trees; the 75-100 species of Dicomeae include herbs, shrubs and trees. Tarchonantheae includes the genus Brachylaena, species of which predominate in southern African and Madagascan woodlands. Brachylaena species are noted for producing dense, high quality wood, and are also among the largest of the Asteraceae, reaching 40 m in height (Beentje, 2000).

Brachylaena discolor from southeastern Africa. Photo from here.

The largest by far of the three tribes is the Cardueae*, the thistles, with some 2500 species distributed through Eurasia from the Mediterranean to central Asia. The majority of Cardueae are herbs, though there are a few small shrubs or even small trees in the tribe. Most members of Cardueae have distinctive discoid flower heads** and, of course, many have spiny leaves.

*I have just been through the painful, arduous and not-entirely-productive process of trying to decide whether 'Cardueae' or 'Cynareae' is the correct name for this tribe; both names are used regularly. Lamarck & de Candolle published the name 'Cynarocephalae' in 1806 (Reveal, 1997); Cardueae was published by Cassini in 1819 (Solbrig, 1963). The question therefore hinges on whether the '-cephalae' in Cynarocephalae represents a suffix like '-idae' or '-aceae' or whether the name is descriptive of plants with 'heads like Cynara'; if the former, Cynareae has priority from 1806; if the latter, Cynareae was not published until 1830 (and illegitimately so at that) and Cardueae has priority. Botanists still seem to be in the process of duking out which interpretation is corrent, and I suspect that it may take the ICBN stepping in to settle the matter.

**Composite flower heads may contain both 'ray' and 'disk' florets (the little individual flowers). If you think of a daisy, the 'ray' florets are the ones around the edge that carry the large petals while the 'disk' florets are the central ones without petals. Discoid flower heads like those of Cardueae contain only disk florets and no ray florets.

Side view of flower head of Atractylis cancellata, a Mediterranean thistle species in which the rosette of (particularly evil-looking) leaves around the flower head curls upwards to surround it. Photo by Manuel Ramos.

Species of Cardueae most often bring themselves to humanity's attention through the fact that a number of them are significant weed species, and very few Cardueae are regarded with any sort of affection. The Scotch thistle Onopordum acanthium is of course popular in Scotland where it is the national flower; according to legend, a Scottish encampment was saved from a sneak attack by Vikings when one of the invaders yelled out after stepping on a thistle, alerting the sentries to their presence. Also granted a certain regard is Cynara cardunculus, the cardoon/globe artichoke. Earlier classifications recognised two species, the cardoon C. cardunculus grown for its edible stalks and the artichoke C. scolymus grown for its similarly edible flower heads, but there is no doubt that the latter is a horticulturally derived variety of the former. Perhaps the best demonstration of this is that escaped seeds from artichoke fields in California and Australia have given rise to wild populations of 'cardoons' (Sonnante et al., 2007). I will also note that artichokes would also be a feature of my ideal garden - not because I'm a fan of eating artichokes (I think they're pretty tasteless) but because these two-metre tall thistles are such spectacular plants.

And that's all you'll be hearing from me for a little while - five-thirty tomorrow morning, I leave for two weeks in the field. Feel free to talk among yourselves until I get back.


Beentje, H. J. 2000. The genus Brachylaena (Compositae: Mutisieae). Kew Bulletin 55 (1): 1-41.

Funk, V. A., A. Susanna, T. F. Steussy, & H. E. Robinson. 2009. Classification of Compositae. In Systematics, Evolution, and Biogeography of Compositae (V. A. Funk, A. Susanna, T. F. Stuessy & R. J. Bayer, eds) pp. 171-189. International Association for Plant Taxonomy (IAPT): Vienna.

Panero, J. L., & V. A. Funk. 2008. The value of sampling anomalous taxa in phylogenetic studies: major clades of the Asteraceae revealed. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 47 (2): 757-782.

Reveal, J. L. 1997. Early suprageneric names in Asteraceae. Compositae Newsletter 30: 29-45.

Solbrig, O. T. 1963. Subfamilial nomenclature of Compositae. Taxon 12 (6): 229-235.

Sonnante, G., A. V. Carluccio, R. Vilatersana & D. Pignone. 2007. On the origin of artichoke and cardoon from the Cynara gene pool as revealed by rDNA sequence variation. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution 54 (3): 483-495.


  1. ...not because I'm a fan of eating artichokes (I think they're pretty tasteless)

    Cardoons, on the other hand, are a fantastic vegetable, but really hard to buy.

  2. Carduus nutans is my candidate for Most Evil Weed in Western US. Very common along trails (I suspect it’s spread by human & canine trail-users) and growing like crazy in March/April before anything else. When they reach 1.5 meters or so they can completely close off a trail.

    Love artichokes. Just love ‘em. Of course that could be because I dip them in melted butter… Now I can’t stop thinking about them- will check for them at the market on the way home tonight.

    Have a great time in the field.

  3. Owww...bad pun is bad! ^_^

    (just been looking at various floral development papers, and let's just say that if a punning opportunity exists (ABC genes, MADS box...), it WILL be thoroughly abused by the scientific community to the point of complete and utter exhaustion...)

  4. So.... now the the boss is gone... what shall we do to his blog? *evil grin* bwahaha...

  5. I have accidentally run into thistles many a time while in the field, and I can say with confidence that I would most certainly alert any nearby Scottish camps if I accidentally stepped on one. They have a magical ability to penetrate any clothing and, one can probably also assume, kevlar, chain mail, steel armor, etc.

  6. He's back! o_O RUN AWAAAY~

    Now I -really- have to get the Heterolobosea finished soon... >_>

  7. The correct name (finally) is Cardueae, no doubt about it. And yes, they are spiny, complicate and beautiful.

  8. Has there been an ICBN decision on the issue?


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