Thistles In The Land Of Israel

As anyone living in or visiting Israel can tell, the country seems to have thistles everywhere. Indeed, Israel's flora includes a wide variety of thorny plants. The word for "thistle" in Hebrew is "kotz" and it is used both to describe the prickly part of a plant (a prickle) and the prickly plant as a whole.

The prickles are to be found on different parts of the plant: some have sharp spikes at the edges of the leaves; some have spikes on the surface of the cup; some plants have buds which do not even develop leaves and flowers but harden and turn into spikes; and some have sharp protrusions along the stem or on the leaves.

The reason for the profusion of prickly plants in Israel is to be found in the climate – particularly the hot dry summers. Plants which in winter and spring develop large, tender leaves which use up and waste large quantities of water, cannot continue thus during the summer season. This has led to the development of a variety of plants which produce two different types of leaves: in the winter they grow large, smooth leaves which have a high level of photosynthesis and water loss; with the approach of summer, these leaves wither and the plant produces stems bearing small, prickly leaves and thorns which develop on different parts of the plant.

The compositae family boasts a large selection of thorny plants. There are dozens of species, some of which are common in fields, on uncultivated tracts and along the roads, which bear thorns on different parts of their leaves right up to the involucre. Some of them dry up and harden after flowering and ripening their seeds, and remain in this state all through the summer, and are a real harassment to farmer, shepherd and hiker alike. The three thistles forming the subjects of this series all belong to this family.

The different kinds of thistles are an inseparable part of the Israel landscape. Artists and all those with an aesthetic sense appreciate their beauty and uniqueness, in spite of the damage and unpleasantness that they cause. In the Bible references to the thistle are usually deprecatory, such as in the case of the original curse laid on Adam on his expulsion from Eden "cursed is the ground for thy sake: in toil shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life. Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee and thou shalt eat of the herb of the field" (Genesis III 17-18). The unfavorable allusions made to thistles make us overlook the attractive flowers that some of them produce, as the three stamps demonstrate.

The featured thistles on the stamps are:

Scolymus –
The Scolymus is an annual, common in uncultivated areas and fields, particularly in heavy soil. It sprouts at the beginning of winter and develops a rosette almost free from thorns. In the spring, a flowery stem grows out of the centre which can reach up to 2 meters in length. The stem develops thorns all along its length and there are even prickles on the small leaves. The thorns that grow on the pinnate leaves of the involucre are particularly sharp.

The Scolymus flowers into a profusion of yellow inflorescences that open up as the sun rises and close 2-3 hours later. As the fruit ripens, the whole plant turns white, hardens and remains in that state until it rots away with the coming of the next year's rains. Its seeds provide food for the birds, and the Hebrew name for goldfinch is "Scolymus bird". This thistle is supposedly mentioned several times in the Bible: "the thistle that was in Lebanon sent to the cedar that was in Lebanon" (2 Kings XIV, 9) and "as the lily among thorns" (Song of Songs II, 2).

Echinops –
The Echinops is a perennial found in uncultivated areas around the Mediterranean and in the steppe region. In the summer it is dormant and its parts lying above the ground are dry and withered. It revives in the winter as a rosette of prickly leaves. In the spring it produces spiky stems at the head of which develop prickly round flower clusters 5-10 cm in diameter and blue to violet in colour. The Echinops blooms when the surrounding countryside is already turning yellow. After the inflorescences have flowered they dry up, turn brown and break up into seeds.

Cynara Syriaca –
The Cynara Syriaca (a close relative of the edible Artichoke) is a perennial growing mainly in the heavy soil of the northern valleys. Its leaves dry up in the summer. In the winter it develops large, broad, spiky leaves from which, in the spring, there grow prickly stems bearing large crown-like clusters. Each cluster is enclosed in an involucre and each of its scales ends in a sharp thorn. As the blossoming begins, the whole involucre has a purple-violet colour, the same as the large cluster which is more than 10 cm high, and 6-8 cm in diameter.

The stamps were issued in 1980, design: A. Glaser.