There was a time when wild teasel had a much higher reputation than it now has. In some areas it has fallen from its lofty position in society to the depths of invasive notoriety. In other areas it is barely tolerated. Yet in spite of its fall from grace, it continues to flourish in ditches, old fields and other wastelands.
The year I was going to be six, my mom, dad, Granny Ninna and I piled into our 1946 black Chevy sedan, and we headed out of the mountains on our way to Lexington. My aunt and her family lived there, and my grandmother was going to spend some time with them. We were also going shopping for winter clothes for me. I had not grown much they said, but Mom was determined to buy me a whole new school wardrobe from Tots 'n Teens in the city. Most of the time my clothes were hand made. We didn't have many choices when it came to department stores in my little town, so my mother was as excited as I was. In reality Lexington is less than a couple of hours from where I grew up, depending, of course, on how quickly your speed will take you out of the mountains. In those days of winding mountain roads, it was an all day trip. If we left at six in the morning, you can be sure we would arrive at six in the evening. And so we did.
The morning of our shopping trip arrived, and as soon as the sun rose, so did I. I could not wait for my first city shopping trip. I remember the lights of the stores and my first ride on an escalator. I remember looking down into a box and seeing the bones of my feet, when they were being measured for shoes. I remember the wool skirts and sweaters, and then we came to the coats. The mannikin in the window had blond hair, too, and she was wearing the most beautiful wine colored wool coat, close fitting in the bodice and flared in the skirt. It had a wide rounded collar that was trimmed in white fur with a fur hat to match, and the most charming white fur muff. I had never seen a muff before, only ever having had mittens to cover my hands, but I quickly realized the muff's purpose. It was so very beautiful I could hardly breathe. "Mama", I whispered, "I truly need that coat." My mom said, "It isn't a very practical coat, honey, you need one that is a little warmer, and its white fur will be dirty in no time." "Mama, I really, truly need that coat." She turned away, and my tears started. The mannikin was on a platform in front of a window that faced the street. I sat down on the platform and stared up at the little blond mannikin. Tears streaming. Now at this point, you must give me a little credit. If I had been back home in the mountains, I would have been kicking and screaming, but somehow I knew that would get me nowhere in the big city lights of the Tots 'n Teens store in downtown Lexington, Kentucky. But I did glue myself to that mannikin's leg.
The coat came home with me, and I promised my mother that I would not get one drop of dirt on that coat, or its matching hat, or its beautiful white muff. She also got other clothes for me, most I don't remember now, but I surely do remember my wine coat, and I wore it till it was so short I should have been embarrassed. I took really good care of it too, and wore out many good teasel seed pods doing so.
The upper leaves of the teasel plant join to form a basin in which rainwater collects and this structure inspired the plant's other common name, water thistle. The water was once believed to be cooling to inflamed eyes and was recommended as a cosmetic for the face. The Greek physician Dioscorides maintained that the root had a cleansing property and advocated boiling the root in wine and applying the decoction to warts and other skin eruptions. Other early herbalists favored a root tea as an appetite stimulant and as a remedy for jaundice.
Teasel is a native of Europe and is naturalized in North America from Quebec to Ontario, from New England south to North Carolina and west to Utah, and in the Pacific Northwest states. It is a prickly biennial herb with a bristly stem growing 3-6 feet tall. The prickly lance shaped to oblong leaves occur in pairs with their bases fused. The small bluish lavender flowers show from July to October. They are tubular and are born in a flowerhead surrounded by sharp spiny bracts. Teasel is seldom recommended in herbal medicine today. No scientific data are available to confirm any of its uses. In winter many people use the seed heads in floral decorations. I would be one of them, since I have used bundles of teasel stems tied together in a red bow to decorate many Christmas trees. Sprayed gold, they are beautiful in a vase with magnolia leaves.
Wild teasel, Dipsacus sylvestris, is a close relative of the cultivated species D. fullomun. The main difference between the two plants is that the bracts of wild teasel's flowerheads are straight while those of the cultivated species have hooked tips, which will revert to growing straight if the plant is returned to the wild. The Romans used these hooked tips for teasing and raising the nap of woolen cloth. At one time in the United States the cultivation of teasel was a sizable industry in New York state. Modern machinery has replaced the domestic teasel, but cannot match the luxurious finish it imparts.
I am sure you know the rest of my story. Using an unlimited supply of teasel flowerheads, I brushed my wine coat and its fur trimmed collar to within an inch of its life. To keep it clean, I brushed against the nap, then just as carefully I brushed along the nap to smooth its fibers. I did the same with the fur on the collar, the fur hat and the fur muff. I must have worn it for several years, and I can remember being very sad when it no longer fit. It was a gentle brushing that I gave that coat, I couldn't hold the teasel very tightly because it hurt my hands, and of course the wool of the coat needed to be treated gently, too. I will tell you for sure, that was one well loved coat. I might have spent my life in the mountains with stained hands, dirt on my face and twigs in my hair, but I knew a thing or two about fashion. It broke my heart when I could no longer wear it. My mom saved the fur hat and muff for so many years they disintegrated, right in the cedar chest that I still keep in my bedroom. I dearly loved that coat.
Sources: The Reader's Digest Association, Inc. 1986 "Magic and Medicine of Plants".
The photos are from Plant Files, with particular thanks to Kniphofia, DMersh, Growin, and Kennedyh.