Friday, July 9, 2010

Gettin' To Know You: Globe Thistle

Once upon a time I saw what looked like a giant pom pon on a stick, a-juttin' out of the ground near the African American Civil War Memorial. "Oh!" I exclaimed. "It's a giant pom pon on a stick, a-juttin' out of the ground!" In love with the odd plant, I took a picture of it.

Weeks later, Le Boyfriend and I were walking to RedRocks for some pizza when an overgrown patch of Earth caught our attention. Ever adventurous, we snuck down the alley and into the backyards of some Columbia Heights residents. (We also ate some of their totally unripe grapes, which I found to be bitterly delicious, but the boyfriend found to be just plain bitter.)

Beyond that alley, you know what we discovered? AMAZINGNESS, my gardening friends. An overgrown oasis in the middle of the city. A big heap of potential wrapped up in weeds and trash. Washington Parks & People has plans for the lot, and we applaud their efforts. In fact, we wish we were a part of it. (Yo! Parks & People! We'd like to help out! Give us a holler, yo.)

As we investigated the lot further, I found amongst the debris A GIANT POM PON ON A STICK! Except it was a dead pom pon. Or maybe it was just sleeping. Hibernating. It was all sticky and dry and not-at-all-purple and flowery. Desite its seemingly dead-ness, it was still absolutely fantastic. I did the "Get me that! Get me that!" dance, so the boyfriend jumped the barrier and pulled the plant out of the ground.

(In Le Boyfriend's defense, he didn't mean to pull the whole thing out. He was going for one of the seeds but the stalk was hollow and light and the plant just POPPED out of the ground. I call that Providence, people.)

Not knowing what it was, I did some research and discovered the following about this beloved plant:

Name: Globe Thistle, Echinops ritro

Globe thistles are stalwart perennials that produce metallic-blue blossoms with perfectly round flower heads atop ribbed stems. Plants grow two to five feet tall and almost as wide. The spiny-edged leaves are white and woolly underneath.

Other details: This plant is attractive to bees, butterflies and/or birds. Drought-tolerant; suitable for xeriscaping. Self-sows freely; deadhead if you do not want volunteer seedlings next season. Not fussy about soil. This plant is resistant to deer. Protect from aphids, and stake them if necessary.

Uses: The larger species are impressive when used in background plantings or when grown as specimen plants. The smaller types are attractive in a bed, border, or wild garden.

Family: Asteraceae (ass-ter-AY-see-ee)
Genus: Echinops (EK-in-ops)
Species: ritro (RIH-tro)
Category: Perennials
Height: 24-36 in. (60-90 cm)
Spacing: 15-18 in. (38-45 cm)
Sun Exposure: Sun to Partial Shade
Bloom Color: Medium Blue
Bloom Time: Late Summer/Early Fall
Foliage: Grown for foliage; Herbaceous; Silver/Gray; Blue-Green
Soil pH Requirements: 5.1 to 5.5 (strongly acidic); 5.6 to 6.0 (acidic)
Propagation: By division in the spring or by seed.

Related species: Echinops sphaerocephalus is a species that is much taller, sometimes reaching seven feet, and is best used where a strong statement is needed.

Related varieties: Taplow Blue has intense blue color in the flowers and, at only two to three feet tall, is well behaved in borders.

All that said, I have seeds for these monster lollipop-like plants. If you want to grow 'em,
let me know! But be warned: several people reported that Globe Thistles were incredibly invasive and self-propagated all over the gosh darned place. Others said that self-propagation was poppycock and that theirs didn't spread at all. So if you plant one, keep an eye on it so that it doesn't TAKE OVER THE WORLD.


  1. I went back last night and got one of the bitter grapes. I wanted the seeds since the grape vine looking thing that was coming up in my yard didn't survive.

  2. Hello! I am much enjoying your blog, but did want to add a little to your post. I am a landscape designer in the DC area. I love Echinops and think this is a great plant for gardens in our area - it is one tough plant! The plant that you found and have a picture of, however, is not Echinops, but rather a type of Allium (ornamental onion). I'm not sure of the variety - could be Allium atropurpureum, or one of several other types that look like that following flowering in spring/early summer. The giveaway is the leaves. The leaves of onions, like most bulbs, decline after flowering, and so many people will overplant them with plants that start to flush out later in the season. But the dried flower heads can be really spectacular on some varieties, as your pictures show! Hope you don't mind my correction.

  3. ibid - I'm checking to see if the thing in your yard actually IS grape. It would be very funny if you were cultivating poison ivy :-)

    Thomas - I don't mind the correction AT ALL! I'm a novice gardener, so I welcome any wisdom you will share! WHOA! I just did a Google search for "Allium" and GOOD GOLLY MISS MOLLY! Those are fantastic! I'm planting these things everywhere. Oh yes indeedio. Thanks so much!