Thistle Meaning and Symbolism (Warning & Bravery)

The thistle is synonymous with Scotland as this is their national flower, as well as an integral part of their history. For most other cultures, however, it commonly represents polar opposite meanings, with both positive and negative allusions attached to it.

On the good side, it stands for protection, honor, chivalry, endurance, and survival. On the darker side, it is sometimes taken as a warning or as a symbol of poverty and suffering.

Some thistle species are used for ornaments, while others can be used to treat certain ailments. One of the more popular thistle variants used in medicine is the milk thistle, which is a good antioxidant.

Certain types of thistles that look like shrubs are sometimes taken as weeds and treated as such since gardeners fear they may harm the other plants and flowers. 

However, this is a misconception as some thistle varieties are actually beneficial for the ecosystem. 

Thistles that are native to the area are meant to provide food and shelter to bees, butterflies, and insects.

Thistle Meaning and Symbolism

Remember that symbolism is subjective. The below are examples of possible interpretations only, and may not be the correct interpretations for you and your situation.

Thistle Symbolism and Meaning

Similar to the contrast in how thistles are sometimes treated as a pest, while at other times as a blessing, the symbolism applied to the plant are also polar opposites.

Some cultures treat it with reverence, taking it as a sign of honor and bravery, while others see it as a reminder to take caution or to beware of pain.

Most of the symbolism and meaning attached to the thistle can be traced to Europe, particularly Scotland, France, and parts of Norway.

The variations and changes in its symbolism can be attributed to its role in the history of that particular country or community.

1. A Sign Of Warning

During the Victorian era, the act of giving a thistle flower to someone serves as an unspoken warning. It is a reminder to mind one’s own business and not to get involved in the situation.

Sometimes, it is even called the “flower of intrusion”. Its physical appearance alone is already a warning to others, telling them not to get too close.

Because of the thorns that protect almost all parts of the plant, people have to take the risk of getting hurt if they still insist on getting close.

The warning that is sent out with the gifting of the flower essentially means the same thing.

2. Poverty and Pain

The are several thistle references in the bible, and it is mostly in the context of suffering and pain. There is even a direct reference to a “cursed ground” as the one to produce the plant. 

In Genesis Chapter 3 verse 18 of the Old Testament, the thistle is described as a wretched plant that grows in impoverished places, characterized by dry and barren ground.

This same description was repeated in the book of Proverbs Chapter 24 verse 30.

This represents a lack of food and sustenance as such conditions would not be able to support the growth of crops or the care needed to sustain livestock. 

3. Protection

As a plant full of thorns, the thistle has the ability to protect itself, since the thorns make it difficult for others to directly touch any part of the plant.

If placed closely together, it can form a barrier for others and keep them away from harm. Its medicinal properties also strengthen the body and prevent it from being overcome with serious illnesses.

During the older times in France, the plant was widely used as protection from evil spirits and witchcraft. It was referred to as the “Flower of the Sun” as French legends claimed that it was the sun’s representative, sent down to earth to help protect the people.

At other times, it was called the “Herb of Witches” since the plant always stood straight under direct sunlight. 

In contrast, witches were allegedly afraid of the sun and are not able to come out during the day or to look directly at the sun like the thistle can. 

The thistle was also mentioned in Greek mythology during the battle with the Minotaur. 

It is said that Theseus consumed a sow thistle as a means to arm himself before heading to the labyrinth in search of the Minotaur. Thus, the early Greeks believed that the plant also provides protection from evil beings. 

4. Honor and Chivalry

Probably the most prominent association that can be attributed to the thistle is that of chivalry.  After all, the second-highest order in the United Kingdom was named after the plant, and that is the Order of the Thistle.

The Order of the Thistle recognizes chivalry and is the greatest order of its type in Scotland.  Their motto of “Nemo me impune lacessit”, translates to “No one harms me with impunity” and is an apt representation of the plant itself.

When attempting to get close to the plant, one has to expose himself to the thorns, thus hurting himself first before even getting a chance to hurt any part of the thistle.

Records note that the Order was established in 1687 by James II of Scotland, but some stories allude to it having started as early as the 12th century by King David I of the Scots.

The Order was made official a few centuries ago in a bid to recognize the individuals who support the royal family. This practice has been continued until the present time under the leadership of the Queen of England.

5. Bravery, Endurance, and Survival 

The thistle is popularly known as the emblem of Scotland and it is prominently displayed in the country, used in currencies, military badges, and even armor.

It has been associated with stories of bravery because it once helped the Scots in battle. Its ability to thrive even in harsh conditions has also made it a symbol of endurance and survival.

According to folklore, the Scots were almost ambushed in their battle against Norway many years ago.

Enemy soldiers who attempted a sneak attack in the middle of the night removed their shoes to minimize the noise they create as they approach the Scottish camp.

However, they accidentally stepped on a batch of thistles and shouted in pain, waking up the Scottish soldiers who then charged on bravely to defend their post.


The thistle is a tricky plant to care for. It is beautiful to look at, but it can prick you and cause you pain if you are not careful enough. This duality leads to the complex nature of symbols that are attached to it.

Whether seen as an annoying weed or as a useful shrub, the thistle remains to be a popular choice for many. You can use it as a decoration, or maybe even gift it to someone else, just remember to be careful of the thorns.