Thistle Tattoo Meaning, Design & Ideas

Thistle is the name that is given to a specific group of flowering plants. These plants are characterized by the sharp, prickly outer body of the flower. Small needle-like thorns protrude from the leaves of the plant as well as the stem, embodying the entire plant.

The reason for these prickles is a defense against herbivorous animals from eating them, mother nature’s way of warning off predators. Thistles are part of the daisy flowering tribe, Cynareae. Within this tribe, four main flowers are most recognized and placed within this thistle category. Cynara, Carduus, Onopordum, and Cirisium are all the names of these main flowers that we simply call, thistles, or thistle flowers.

All four of these flowering plants we call thistles look a little different from each other and even serve different purposes, all with the same prickly outer body.

The thistle is so widely known around the globe because it can sprout in what seems to be just about any environment and region. From North America to Africa, Western Asia, Australia, and most adored by the country of Scotland. It is so loved by Scotland in fact that they even made the thistle the emblem of their country. This thistle can be seen flying on flags and other respectable objects and places.

The thistle that is portrayed as an emblem of Scotland is said to be the Cirsium Vulgare flower, also known as the spear thistle, bull thistle, or the common thistle. Scotland incorporated this wildflower into its country’s emblem because of a popular legend throughout the land.

Legend has it, that an invading country was trying to sneak up on the Scottish army while they were most vulnerable at night time. While this invading country was doing so, one of the soldiers of the country was walking barefoot through the fields leading to the encampment of the Scottish soldiers. While doing so, he accidentally stepped on a type of thistle, shocking him at first and letting out a loud cry of pain that then alerted the Scottish army. Because of this alarming disturbance, the Scottish army was able to defend itself against the oncoming attack, emerging victorious.

They then decided to give all credit to this beautiful, yet dangerous flower of nature. The image of the spear thistle on the flag has a crown sitting on top of the flower, expressing its royalty. Scotland even engraved the thistle on its coins used as currency.

Thistle Types, Designs, and Symbolism

As mentioned above, there are hundreds of different types and forms of thistles that exist in nature. With so many different thistle breeds, it can be difficult to choose which one is best to get as a tattoo. Four thistle flowers seem to stick out and are the most popular, however. Each one of these thistles is unique in its way and they all have the same prickly outer body.

Symbolism for the thistle and the image of a thistle can be very powerful. Especially in the regions of Scotland, the thistle is looked highly upon as a symbol of determination, devotion, bravery, and strength. Flowers themselves have always shown a sign of peace, this flower with its rugged exterior and vivacious purple and green colors complements and even out the beauty of this flower.

Cynara Cardunculus

The Cynara Cardunculus, also known as the Cardoon, artichoke thistle, or globe artichoke, is a thistle that has been cultivated in ancient times throughout the central and western Mediterranean regions. This plant has a green and grayish stem that when getting close to the bulb, fades into a violet-purple.

Almost hairy looking, stringy soft petals bloom out the top of this flower. Along with the prickly spikes that emerge all over the flower, this type of thistle makes a great piece of body art. This particular thistle flower is used as a source of enzymes for vegetarian cheese production.


The Carduus thistle plant is native to the regions of Eurasia and Africa but is also seen in many other places. These thistles are also known as noxious weeds, this means that once they start growing, they can cover a very large amount of land and spread. These flowers usually grow to be 6 to 12 feet tall and can be rather dangerous to both humans and animals if consumed. Unlike the Cynara Cardunculus which is edible, the Carduus thistle is poisonous and deadly if consumed. This is yet another example of an attractive flower that is equally as fatal.

Onopordum Acanthium

Onopordum Acanthium, also known as the cotton thistle, or the Scotch thistle, has a bit of a different appearance than the previously mentioned flowers. This particular thistle has a wide base that branches off in every way. With large spiked bulbs and prickled stems, what look like wings protrude from the stems that have a silky, ribbon-like texture that extends to the base of the bright pink to dark lavender head of the flower. If you decide to get this type of thistle as a tattoo, a word of advice would be to get it in a spot where you have enough room to accommodate all of its features and branches.


Cirsium, better known as the plume thistle, is unlike many other thistles. The Cirsium thistle has feathered hairs attached to its achenes or their seeds. Most thistles have pink and purple flowers sprouting from their bulbs, the Cirsium however, not only has these pink and purple delicate flowers but they can also produce white and yellow ones as well. This being said a tattoo of a Cirsium plant can give you more options as far as the coloring goes. These flowering thistle plants also do not have as many ‘wings’ sprouting from the stems.

With all of this in mind, choosing a tattoo of a thistle should be a little easier. Choosing the right graphic for you may be the hardest part of this process, for we all have different tastes and opinions when it comes to art. Tattoos of the thistle should also always be done with color. A black and white thistle would not be as appealing as a thistle that had streaks of purple and green throughout it. The color is also very important because like every flower, the beauty of the petals is what the human eye is most attracted to.

Thistle tattoos can virtually be placed anywhere on the body; most popular placements are around the ankle and forearms. If you want this piece to be more discreet, a graphic of a blooming thistle running along the side of the ribs is another great place to get this flower tattooed.

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