If Salvador Dali was ever looking for a model for a botanical self-portrait, he might have chosen teasel.
It may seem strange to compare the looks of a plant to a person until you see the dried flower head of the teasel plant. Prominent to the point of bragging are the flower’s bracts that would give Dali’s mustache a run for its money — a true doppelganger for the man equally famous for his surrealist art and his facial hair.
Coming across teasel on a weekend walk, I was immediately hooked.
The Dali mustache-like bracts are the reason since those pointed structures have been historically linked to the production of fine wool and, more recently, the inspiration for the modern catchall, Velcro. Also called card thistle, barber’s brush, brushes and combs, and clothiers brush, teasel had an important (and almost irreplaceable) role in the production of woolen clothing. Its sharp prickles were compared to those of the hedgehog and served to tease (hence the name), card or brush wool to remove knots and objects in the fibers. Metal combs now serve the same purpose though those are reputed to tear the material more so than teasel.
Teasel, a plant in the genus Dipsacus, serves more than just that fiber function. The name of the genus hails from the Latin word for thirsty, the result of an interesting characteristic of its leaves. Coming together at the stem, the bases of the leaves form a small cup that will hold dew or rainwater. The water that accumulates in these leaf cups is believed to be a curative.
Collect it if you can, for it may be used cosmetically for the face, reputedly alleviating acne and able to remove freckles. Washing the eyes is another refreshing function of the specially collected water. Medicinally, teasel is believed to be a remedy for “warts and wens, cankers and fistulas.” An infusion of its roots is said to strengthen one’s stomach, increase appetite, remove liver obstruction and even deter jaundice. Modern herbalists suggest a tincture of teasel for battling the effects of Lyme disease.
Imported from Europe for its many uses, teasel was a quick study for life abroad. After intentional planting, it can become naturalized in yards, waste places and roadsides. Surprisingly, I had not seen this plant on the Island until last week when I found it in an old garden site. Two varieties can be found growing wild in New England, though teasel cultivars are planted for its domestic uses and flowers, which are often used in floral arrangements. In Britain, this plant might be found near cemeteries due to its popularity for funeral flowers and its eventual seeding after being left on graves.
Spreading comes easily since teasel is famous for its high seed production, and in some places it is considered invasive. An average plant can produce 3,300 seeds, since a single flowerhead can boast 850 seeds and one plant can sport up to 40 flowerheads.
Some wildlife take advantage of this fecundity and other appealing features. Goldfinches and blackbirds enjoy those plentiful seeds, and insects such as bumble and other long-tongued bees will partake of its nectar.
Teasel brings both benefits and baggage, a dichotomy of its form, function and origin, something Salvador Dali would have likely understood and appreciated. Like teasel, he also could be a bit prickly, observing, “Whoever wants to engage people’s interest must provoke them.”
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown, and author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature and The Nature of Martha’s Vineyard.