The star thistle is also known as caltrops, named for the metal traps with four spikes that were used in time of war. I can tell you truly, the star thistle is indeed a trap for bare feet.
Going barefoot was not something that was done very often when I was growing up in the mountains. It wasn't the sting of the bee that bothered me, nor the possibility of stepping on a sharp stone, it was instead the ever present danger of stepping on a slimy slug or a warty frog. Pain I could handle, gross I couldn't. I did not want to touch the innards of anything. Sandals were not an option either, because even then, gross things could ooze up past the sole of the sandal, and touch my foot.
Most every year I was the proud owner of saddle shoes. During the winter I wore brown Buster Browns, but come spring, I sported new saddle shoes. They were white, with the black saddle most years, but one year I was blessed with red saddles, and boy o boy did I ever love them. I remember that year fondly as my Red Summer. I had red shorts, red checked skirts, red blouses, red ribbons, red undies and red socks. I must have worn red every single day. I also remember having a tiny red shoulder bag that had two compartments. In one compartment I kept a mirror compact that my older cousin Lucy had given me, and Tangee lipstick that I had snitched from my mother's dresser drawer. She didn't wear it anyway. In the other compartment I had notes from my boyfriend of the moment. They said things like: "roses are red, violets are blue, I am here, where are you?" Typical boy stuff, but I treasured them.
The only time I took my saddle shoes off was when I went creek wading. They were on my feet daily as I ran around in the mountains. They saved me from many injuries, including episodes with star thistles. Centaurea calcitrapa grows in fields and along roadsides. You could not kick up dust without stumping your toe on star thistle. It is a native of Europe, and is naturalized in eastern North America. It is an annual or biennial herb that usually grows about a foot tall. It rises from a basal rosette of twice divided spiny leaves that are about 6 inches long. The pinkish purple flowerheads bloom from June till October in most places and they are also surrounded by straw colored prickly bracts.
On European battlefields long ago soldiers planted caltrops, metal spiked traps, to damage the feet of the enemy and the hooves of their horses. Quite possibly it was these soldiers, returned from the wars, who gave the name caltrops to star thistles. They definitely resemble the battle traps. They impeded a farmer's march through his fields or a walker's stroll along the roadside.
Just as with some people, even though quite prickly, the star thistle has a number of virtues. The young scales of the flowerhead are edible like an artichoke, and in parts of North Africa the young, tender stems and leaves complement the salads. Camels, too are often fed this herb. In the past star thistle also has been used medicinally, most notably for reducing fevers. In the 19th century, it was noted that Americans were employing the plant for kidney complaints such as nephritis and kidney stones. Some herbal books also list the seeds as a diuretic, if the seeds are crushed and soaked in white wine. It also recommends an infusion of the leaves and flowers for fevers and general debility. Claims that the plant is good for fever reduction, or as a diuretic have not been studied scientifically, and other claims that it might be an antidiabetic herb are currently being studied.
The star thistle bloom is attractive to bees, butterflies and birds, and is quite suitable for xeriscaping. It is however considered invasive is some areas.
Actually I never knew of it being used for anything when I was growing up. I only know it stopped my progress occasionally when I was running across a field and stumbled upon its flowerhead, or got its prickly leaves attached to my socks. I was known for my stomping fits when I was outside and particularly aggravated by something that impeded my mission of the moment. I suspect that those star thistles barely survived some of my tirades. Red saddle shoes were particularly good at stomping, and the star thistle did not leave any kind of oozing residue on the bottoms of my shoes. I thought that was a very good thing and strongly recommended to my mother that the red of the shoes created magic and could I please have them in blue, too.
My recollections do not include blue saddle shoes, but there was I time when I had some high heeled purple suedes. That has nothing to do with plants or traipsing around in the mountains, so I will save that story for another time, another place, and leave you with the red saddles that stomped out all the star thistles that threatened to impede my path.
The first photo is under Fair Use provisions of Copyright Law of the United States, the photographer is Malcom Storey and can be seen in the Invasive Species link above. The next photo is from Wikipedia's Public Domain and the photographer is Bogdan Giusca, it was taken in Romania. The photo of the other thistle photo is in Plant Files and the photographer is Kennedyh. The saddle shoes are from Public Domain files.
About Sharon Brown
I am a retired high school art and humanities teacher. I grew up in the Appalachian mountains of southeast KY and now I live with my two rescued cats, Jazz and Daisy, in far western KY. I am an artist often doing commissioned work, and in addition to writing articles for Dave's Garden, I also write boating stories for a nautical magazine as well as other venues. My greatest loves are writing, painting, my 5 year old grandson, then learning the history of our numerous wildflowers in Kentucky. And, of course, there's gardening.