MY FATHER was a flower lover with a sense of humor, and our home garden in northern Illinois was a show place. One spring he cultivated three "weeds" in strategic spots, "to see what would come of it." Considerable did. For each one he had learned the scientific name, which he used in the hearing of visitors. The six-foot mullein in the middle of his canna bed puzzled people who tried to figure out what kind of canna it was. A milkweed near the street made a handsome "rubber tree," and passers-by were often exclaiming: "Look at that rubber plant! We didn't know it would grow outdoors in this climate!"
But his chief fun was with his Cirsium lanceolatum, which grew near the rose bushes under my mother's bedroom window. About six feet tall, heavily branched, its deeply cleft leaves were dark, sparkling green above and densely woolly white beneath, each angle ending in one of the needlesharp yellow spines from which the plant derives its second name (lanceolatum).
By August it was crowned with orchid flowers, the calyxes of which were gracefully vase shaped, formed of many overlapping green scales, each ending in a tiny "lance." The clustered tubular florets in each vase were of a beautiful lavender color, each whole cluster perhaps three inches across. The black-and-gold bumblebees tumbled in crooning intoxication over those purple pastures, imbibing nectar and dodging lances. My father reveled in displaying to us children the plant's graces and lovelinesses, until we regarded it with mingled admiration and respect; and in the years since, its memory has helped me more than once to discover the good in some human weed.
Then one day it served another purpose. The chief "character" of the vicinity was a certain Mr. Bohl, an English-American of German descent, who combined the harshest qualities of all three nationalities. He slapped down the opinions of everyone he met, and was in general the most heartily detested "Mr. Know-it" of the neighborhood. One Sunday afternoon he and his British cane were taking the air in our garden, he as usual talking down everything my father said or did. Suddenly confronted by this large, flower-covered "weed," he aimed it a blow with his cane that would have demolished it, saying scornfully, "What do you mean by having a common thistle in your garden?"
My father swiftly intercepted the blow, replying sternly, "What do you mean by trying to destroy my Cirsium lanceolatum?"
Mr. Bohl's deflation was complete. He said apologetically, "Oh, I thought it was just a common thistle." My father did not enlighten him, and Mr. Bohl's manner was much chastened for the remainder of the call. We youngsters, listening inside the window, fell over ourselves in soundless mirth; and the anecdote, discreetly circulated, rocked the immediate community with laughter.
Yes, Cirsium lanceolatum was "just a common thistle." Next time you see one, study its marvelous beauty; then go home and read 1 Corinthians 1:27-29.