Gateway to the Classics: Wild-Flower Study by Anna Botsford Comstock
Wild-Flower Study by  Anna Botsford Comstock

The Teasel

Teacher's Story

The old teasel stalks standing gaunt and gray in the fields, braving the blasts of winter, seem like old suits of armor, which elicit admiration from us for the strength and beauty of the protecting visor, breast-plate and gauntlets, and at the same time veer our thoughts to the knights of old who once wore them in the fray. Thus, with the teasel, we admire this panoply of spears, and they recall the purple flowers and the ribbed seeds which were once the treasure of every spear-guarded cavity and the proud reason of every lance at rest.


The teasel.

Let us study this plant in armor: First, its stem is tough, woody, hollow, with ridges extending its full length and each ridge armed with spines which are quite wide at the base and very sharp. It is impossible to take hold anywhere without being pricked by either large or small spines. The leaves are just fitted for such a stem. They are long, lanceolate, set opposite in pairs, rather coarse in texture, with a stiff, whitish midrib; the bases of the two leaves closely clasp the stem; the midrib is armed below with a row of long, white, recurved prickers, and woe unto the tongue of grazing beast that tries to lift this leaf into the mouth. If one pair of clasping leaves point east and west, the next pairs above and below point north and south.

The flower stems come off at the axils of the leaves and therefore each pair stands at right angles to the ones above and below. But if the teasel protects its stem and leaves with spikes, it does more for its flowers, which are set in dense heads armed with spines, and the head is set in an involucre of long, upcurving spiny prongs. If we look at it carefully, the teasel flower-head wins our admiration, because of the exquisite geometrical design made by the folded bases of the spines, set in diagonal rows. If we pull out a spine, we find that it enlarges toward the base to a triangular piece that is folded at right angles for holding the flower. Note that the spiny bracts at the tip of the flower-head are longer and more awesome than those at the sides; if we pass our hands down over the flower-head we feel how stiff the spines, or bracts are, and can hear them crackle as they spring back.

The teasel has a quite original method of blossoming. The goldenrod begins to blossom at the tip of the flowering branches and the blossom-tide runs inward and downward toward the base. The clover begins at the base and blossoms toward the tip, or the center. But the teasel begins at the middle and blossoms both ways, and how it knows just where to begin is more than we can tell. But some summer morning we will find its flower-head girt about its middle with a wide band of purple blossoms; after a few days, these fade and drop off, and then there are two bands, sometimes four rows of flowers in each, and sometimes only two. Below the lower band and above the upper band, the enfolding bracts are filled with little, round-headed lilac buds, while between the two rows of blossoms the protecting bracts hold the precious growing seed. Away from each other this double procession moves, until the lower band reaches the pronged involucre and the upper one forms a solid patch on the apex of the flower-head. Since the secondary blossom-heads starting from the leaf axils are younger, we may find all stages of this blossoming in the flower-heads of one plant.

No small flower pays better for close examination than does that of the teasel. If we do not pull the flower-head apart, what we see is a little purple flower consisting of a white tube with four purple lobes at the end, the lower lobe being a little longer than the others and turning up slightly at its tip; projecting from between each of the lobes, and fastened to the tube, are four stamens with long, white filaments and beautiful purple anthers filled with large, pearly white pollen grains; at the very heart of the flower, the white stigma may be seen far down the tube. But a little later, after the anthers have fallen or shriveled, the white stigma extends out of the blossom like a long, white tongue and is crowded with white pollen grains.


Teasel flower and seed enlarged. The stigma of a teasel floret much magnified to show the pollen adhering to it. Below, are pollen grains greatly magnified.

But to see the flower completely we need to break or cut a flower-head in two. Then we see that the long white tube is tipped at one end with purple lobes and a fringe of anthers, and at the other is set upon a little green, fluffy cushion which caps the ovary; the shape of the ovary in the flower tells us by its form how the seed will look later. Enfolding ovary and tube is the bract with its spiny edges, pushing its protecting spear outward, but not so far out as the opening of the flower, for that might keep away the insects which carry the teasel's pollen. The pollen of the teasel is white and globular, with three little rosettes arranged at equal distances upon it like a bomb with three fuses. These little rosettes are the growing points of the pollen grains and from any of them may emerge the pollen tube to push down into the stigma. The teasel pollen is an excellent subject for the children to study, since it is so very large; and if examined with a microscope with a three-fourths objective, the tubes running from the pollen grains into the stigma may be easily seen.

In blossoming, the teasel does not always seem to count straight in the matter of rows of flowers. There may be more rows in the upper band than in the lower, or vice versa;  this is especially true of the smaller secondary blossoms. But though the teasel flowers fade and the leaves fall off, still the spiny skeleton stands, the thorny stalks holding up the empty flower-heads like candelabra, from which the seeds are tossed far and wide, shaken out by the winds of autumn. But though battered by wintry blasts, the teasel staunchly stands; even until the ensuing summer, each bract on guard and its heart empty where once was cherished blossom and seed. Alas, because of this emptiness, it has been debased by practical New England housewives into a utensil for sprinkling clothes for ironing.

The spines of one species of teasel were, in earlier times, used for raising the nap on woolen cloth, and the plant was grown extensively for that purpose. The bees are fond of the teasel blossoms and teasel honey has an especially fine flavor.

The teasels are biennial, and during the first season, develop a rosette of crinkled leaves which have upon them short spines.


A teasel winter rosette.

Photo by Verne Morton.


The Teasel

Leading thought—The teasel is a plant in armor, so protected that it can flourish and raise its seeds in pastures where cattle graze. It has a peculiar method of beginning to blossom in the middle of the flower-head and then blossoming upward and downward from this point.

Method—In September, bring in a teasel plant which shows all stages of blossoming, and let the pupils make observations in the schoolroom.


1. Where does the teasel grow? Is it ever eaten by cattle? Why not? How is it protected?

2. What sort of stem has it? Is it hollow or solid? Where upon it are the spines situated? Are the spines all of the same size? Can you take hold of the stem anywhere without being pricked?

3. What is the shape of the leaves? How do they join the stem? Are the leaves set opposite or alternate? If one pair points east and west in which direction will the pairs above and below point? How and where are the leaves armed? How does the cow or sheep draw the leaves into the mouth with the tongue? If either should try to do this with the teasel, how would the tongue be injured?

4. Where do the flower stems come off? Do they come off in pairs? How are the pairs set in relation to each other?

5. What is the general appearance of the teasel flower-head? Describe the long involucre prongs at the base. If the teasel is in blossom, where do you find the flowers? How many girdles of flowers are there around the flower-head? How many rows in one girdle? Where did the first flowers blossom in the teasel flower-head? Where on the head will the last blossoms appear? Where are the buds just ready to open? Where are the ripened seeds?

6. Examine a single flower. How is it protected? Cut out a flower and bract and see how the long-spined bract enfolds it. Is the bract spear long enough to keep the cattle from grazing on the blossom? Is it long enough to keep the bees and other insects from visiting the flowers? Where are the longest spines on the teasel head?

7. Study a single flower. What is the shape of its corolla? How is it colored? What color are the stamens? How many? Describe the pollen. If the pollen is being shed where is the stigma? After the pollen is shed, what happens to the stigma?

8. What do you find at the base of the flower? How does the young seed look? Later in the season take a teasel head and describe how it scatters its seed. How do the ripe seeds look? How long will the old teasel plants stand?

9. For what were teasels once used? How many years does a teasel plant live? How does it look at the end of its first season? How is this an advantage as a method of passing the winter?

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