Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Nature Bulletin No. 586   January 9, 1960
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Daniel Ryan, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor
David H. Thompson, Senior Naturalist

One of the most remarkable and picturesque plants found in Cook County is the Teasel. More prickly than a thistle and as completely armored as any cactus, it is far the most formidable. You cannot take hold of a teasel, anywhere, without being painfully stabbed. Even the leaves have fine hairs that penetrate your skin as deeply as slivers of glass.

Teasel is a biennial. Now, in winter, tall dead stalks of it stand erect and branched like a candelabra. They grew and bloomed last summer from plants that were in their second year. On the ground among them are green rosettes of large crinkled leaves. Those, and long taproots, were developed by teasel plants during their first year. Like similar rosettes of mullein and bull thistle, they stay green all winter and each will send up a flower stalk next spring.

An old stalk, from 3 to 6 feet tall, is tough, woody and hollow, with several ridges along its entire length. Each ridge is armed with short spines that are wide at the base and very sharp. At intervals that increase to 10 inches or more near the top, are opposite pairs of branches -- each pair projecting upward in a plane at right angles to that of the next pairs above and below it. At the tip of the main stem and of each branch is a cylindrical cone bristling with brown spines densely packed in diagonal rows. Curving outward from its base are several needle-pointed spiny prongs. Those cones were flower heads in summer.

Each pair of branches grew from the axils of a pair of leaves. The leaves are long and pointed, with jagged margins. The upper surface is dotted with prickles and on the underside, there are hooked spines along the midrib. Cattle learn to avoid them but, anyway, the juice is very bitter. The bases of each pair of leaves surround the stalk and form a cup. Country people used to believe that the rainfall collected in those cups was a sure cure for warts.

The teasel has its own peculiar way of blooming in midsummer. A golden-rod, for example, blooms first at the tip of its flowering branches and then downward. On a mullein the clublike flower head begins blooming at the bottom and thence upward. But a teasel begins with a band of blue, lavender or purple flowers around the middle of each flower head and blooms both ways. The construction of the little flowers is as interesting as the rest of the plant. They are pollinated by bumblebees and honeybees. Honey made from their nectar has a very fine flavor.

The common teasel, native in Europe, was grown in Germany, France and England for use in carding wool, raising a nap on woolen cloth, and making blankets fluffy. The dry bristly flower heads are drawn across the material by hand; or the heads, split in half, are mounted on belts or rollers that move across the cloth. Metal wires might tear it.

Introduced into the U.S., teasel was an important crop in central New York for 100 years and, later, in Oregon. It escaped and has become established as a weed from Maine to North Carolina and westward to Missouri and a few far western states. Fuller's Teasel, another species, has been cultivated for 2000 years in southern Europe and is grown in a few of our eastern states. One difference is that the spines or bracts on its flower heads have tiny hooks at the ends.

Patches of the common teasel occur in several places in Cook and neighboring counties. Several of them resulted from refuse dumped there by greenhouses that had teasel stalks and flower heads for sale. They are used as bizarre ornaments in winter bouquets and flower arrangements. In New England they are used by rural housewives to sprinkle clothes for ironing.

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