It's a funny thing with Carlina vulgaris (Carline Thistle). Sometimes it does look scruffy and a disgrace to its surroundings, and sometimes you look more closely at it and you realize with a little shock that it's actually pretty and perfect - the way that an insect can sometimes be seen to be fresh and immaculate though its body is designed to resemble a dead leaf.
And then at other times Carline thistle (especially in numbers) just looks bold and great and hey what's the problem - like the old-fashioned Christmas decorations made out of straw that you can buy in IKEA. That's how it looked on Morgan's Hill near Calne on Sunday. I also saw: round-headed rampion (for the first time), buckthorn (first), marsh helleborine (second - reputedly the only downland site in the UK), saw-wort (second), juniper (in the wild - first in UK). So you can guess I was happy, especially as I had never heard of Morgan's Hill and arrived there by chance. It was blowy and I didn't have much time, at first I missed the quarry and had to double back against the clock, running, took a short-cut over some barbed wire and got stung and scratched to bits. It was bliss. But the group of Carline thistles, a plant I've seen fifty times before, was my highlight - the only plant whose flowers catch the light this way - like straw, yes, but also like gold. Stocky and almost motionless in the breeze, they were emitting a signal though I didn't understand it.
At about the same modest height (20cms) - modest by thistle standards, I mean - I saw something else I'd never seen before, the stalked variant of Cirsium acaule (Dwarf Thistle). (Usually the flowers push out straight from the basal rosette.) I didn't know about this variant until I checked in the book, and for one hammering moment thought I might be looking at a hybrid with Cirsium tuberosum, Wiltshire's great rarity. Everything else about the dwarf thistle is ferociously armed with spines, but the stems were merely bristly, pale and sinuous. I caught myself thinking: "These stems don't seem very highly evolved... I suppose there's no need. After all, they're not usually there." As usual, my mind was struggling to cope with the distinction between a species and an individual. (I vaguely suspect the philosophical coherence of our conception of a species, especially post-Darwin.)
Juniper, one of the world's most widespread plants and the only conifer native to both America and Eurasia, is now rare in England. The few wild plants that remain (like the two on Morgan's Hill) are old, twisted, and lichenous, though still producing plenty of berries. There seem to be no young juniper plants and the problem is thought to be rabbits (introduced to Britain in the Middle Ages) eating all the seedlings (the immature leaves are floppy and palatable).
Follow this link to see pictures of Carlina vulgaris, from John Crellin's site www.floralimages.co.uk. John is a photographer who lives in Weston-Super-Mare (at the other end of the Mendips from me) and his site contains hundreds of images of Mendip plants, as well as other UK and Spanish wild plants.