Teasel power

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This little plant played a big part in the mighty English textile industry. My paternal grandfather would have been familiar with when he worked in the mill in Queen Victoria’s days but today it rarely gets more than just a small mention in reference books.

How the mighty are fallen. Dipsacus fullonum, aka the fuller’s teasel, is named after its former use in the textile industry – the prickly seedheads were used like a comb to clean, align and ‘raise the nap’ on wool.

Those were the days. Now, the teasel can be seen growing wild in many places and it’s also become a popular plant in wildflower gardens where it has an almost magnetic attraction to a host of insects.

And despite its height, the teasel is a good choice for small gardens. This biennial (the young plant forms a small rosette in the first year), grows up, not out, so it doesn’t take up too much space.

Plant it in a sunny spot (it will tolerate a bit of shade) and it should romp away, whatever the soil because it doesn’t need a rich diet to thrive. As long as the soil is relatively well drained, the hardy teasel should grow, eventually achieving a height of five foot or so.

Looked at from any angle, it’s a stately plant with pink purple or white flowers in mid- to late summer. Then they dry to produce those instantly recognisable brown, spiky heads, which seem to provide the perfect hiding place for a multitude of insects (spot the ladybird on the picture on this page).

The leaves and stems are often covered in aphids which are farmed for their honeydew by ants or preyed upon by ladybirds and hoverflies. The flowers themselves are very popular with butterflies and the seeds are sought out by goldfinches and other birds, so it’s easy to see why teasels have become a must-have plant for many creators of wildlife gardens.

If you want teasels, scatter seed in April and sit back; plants will grow. If you’re keen on flower-arranging, you’ll never be short of a stunning plant for your next creation, but be warned – once you have teasels, you will always have teasels because they self-seed like mad. So much so that in the USA, teasels are considered an invasive species.