Globe Thistle: Beautiful, Bountiful Round Flowers

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Most people smile when they see the big, spherical flowers of globe thistle. They’re visually-striking and just so cheerful. They’ve become a staple in arboretums or other garden settings.

The foliage is a bit weedlike in appearance until those giant globes of color appear. Leaves from this plant are a little prickly as they’re covered with a myriad of fine, stiff hairs. Like other thistles, they can be a little hard on the hands.

But the flowers make these large plants worthwhile, and so too does its drought tolerance. It’s very popular in areas like southern California where summer water levels are low. With just occasional watering, these can thrive where other plants don’t.

Let’s discuss the best ways to grow this herbaceous perennial today! With a little know-how, you’ll find this an easy and fun plant to grow.

Overview

Globe thistle
Globe thistle produces beautiful, round flowers. Source: Mike Bird
Scientific Name:Echinops spp., specifically ritro, bannaticus, etc.
Common Name(s):Globe thistle, southern globethistle, blue globe-thistle
Family:Asteraceae
Height & Spread:24″ to 72″ tall, with similar spread
Sun:Full sun
Soil:Well-draining a must. Tolerates poor soils. Loam ideal.
Water:Low water, drought-resistant
Pests & Diseases:Aphids, root rot if overwatered, rarely powdery mildew

All About Globe Thistle

Globe thistle closeup
A close-up of a blooming thistle flower. Source: Jonathan Billinger

The Echinops genus comprises the globe thistles, all 120 or so of them. Surprisingly few of these make their way into regular garden use.

Of those, the most popular is Echinops ritro, or the southern globethistle. It’s won the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden merit. So has one of the subspecies of this plant.

Echinops ritro produces steely-blue flowers that can reach up to 2″ across. The plant itself rarely gets much taller than two feet. Prickly grey-green foliage sets off the vivid blooms.

Another close relative is Echinops bannaticus, the blue globe-thistle. This much larger globe thistle grows to 4 feet tall on average. Due to its size, it’s much less common in garden usage, although it can be a dramatic centerpiece.

Not all globe thistle types produce those blue flowers. Other forms of echinops, such as Echinops exaltatus, produce white flowers. In fact, Echniops exaltatus (sometimes called Russian globe thistle) is the largest of the genus. It can reach staggering heights of 6 feet.

As a general rule, the blue flowering species are preferred to white ones. This is not because the white ones are unattractive – they’re actually just as pretty! But the white ones tend to be less suitable in smaller gardens.

Care

Caring for your thistle plant is relatively easy. It requires no elaborate techniques or fancy soil blends. Let’s talk about the perfect conditions for this perennial flowering plant.

Light & Temperature

Full sun is perfect for your globe thistle plant. While it’s possible to grow in partial shaded conditions, it won’t grow to full size nor flower as much. Looking for something for that bed that gets the summer heat? This is a great choice.

Their natural environment ranges from Europe to central Asia. A Mediterranean climate is preferable, but they can tolerate high heat conditions too. Most grow in USDA zones from 4-8. The blue globe thistle species often tolerate zone 9 and 10 conditions as well.

Water & Humidity

Drought-tolerant, this plant prefers dry soils. It has a long taproot which can get very deep into the soil in search of water. Too moist soil can create conditions that cause root rot.

Because of that, it’s better to water your globe thistles sparingly, but deeply when you water. Use a soaker hose or other soil-surface irrigation. This allows the soil to slowly soak up the moisture and drain off excess.

Mulching around the base of your plants will prevent evaporation. Avoid watering until the soil is dry.

Very young plants may need a little extra water to get established. For these, keep the soil evenly damp but not muddy. Opt on the side of under-watering if you’re uncertain of the watering frequency.

While your plant can tolerate humidity, it may be slightly more susceptible to powdery mildew in humid climates. Arid regions will find this plant has little to no problem in their environment.

Soil

Echinops ritro
The flowers of Echinops ritro range from blue to nearly white. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the best possible conditions, the soil should be loamy but well-draining. You should avoid poorly-drained soils whenever possible. However, globe thistle plants are tolerant of a wide variety of soil types. If you’ve got poor soil, they can handle it.

Avoid extremely rich soils. Your plant’s foliage will explode into growth, but they don’t put out nearly as many flowers. These plants are accustomed to wild conditions and are more than willing to rough it out on their own!

Neutral pH is ideal, but they will tolerate slightly-acidic or slightly-alkaline soils. Try to maintain a neutral pH as much as possible if you can, but don’t panic if it slides a little off balance. Your plant will likely handle it just fine.

Fertilizer

Skip the fertilizer with your echinops plants. Thistle plants typically live in conditions where there’s poor soil quality. They thrive on a bit of neglect! In fact, these are great to start loosening up the soil in areas you plan on converting to gardens later. So don’t worry about fertilizing them… they find their food deep under the soil’s surface.

Propagation

Your thistle plant’s long taproot makes it a poor candidate for root division. Cuttings don’t develop roots quickly enough to survive.

Because of this, your best bet for propagation is from seed. Those bulbous flower heads produce a large quantity of seed as the flowers begin to fade. If you place a paper bag over the flower head once it’s faded, you can usually cut off the head and allow it to dry out. Once dry, you can shake the seed from the bag.

Globe thistle seed is available both online and at local gardening centers. Somewhat more rarely, you may find live plants for sale.

Pruning

Once the round flowers fade, cut back the long stems. Otherwise, most of your pruning will be for shaping and general maintenance.

This plant tends to a weed-like appearance, but doesn’t spread on its own. You can shape it for cosmetic purposes, but it will always have a somewhat weedy look when not blooming.

As the leaves have tiny little leaf spines and often jagged edges, wear gloves when pruning. The stems may also produce thorns, so be sure they’re sturdy gloves. A pair of rose pruning gloves may be your best bet.

Thistle Problems

Globe thistle flowers
Globe thistle’s foliage can look a bit weedy, but the flowers are stunning. Source: Alexas Photos

Have you gotten the sense that your globe thistle’s a bit tough yet? Because these plants are quite determined to care for themselves.

Still, there are a few rare problems you might encounter while growing these. Let’s discuss those briefly.

Growing Problems

As echinops plants grow, they can become top-heavy. This is especially true once they’re in flower. To keep your plants looking good and prevent stems breaking, stake as necessary.

Some species of thistle plants may start to decline after three or four years of growth. If this happens, replace the plant with a younger one. These are perennial, but only tend to look good for the first few years.

Pests

About the only pest you’re likely to encounter on your globe thistle is aphids. These little annoyances like to suck the juice out of thistle stems and leaves.

A good, hard spray of water will wash the aphids off your plant. Be careful not to hit a flower that’s starting to fade with your hose. If you do, you may send a shower of seeds to the ground below your plant.

Weekly mistings of diluted neem oil concentrate will deter aphids.

Diseases

Most diseases don’t bother your thistle plants. If the plant is already weakened, or if it’s overwatered, it may be susceptible to fungal root rot. Keep your plants healthy and the soil on the dry side to prevent this problem.

In humid environments, it is possible that the leaves of your plant will develop powdery mildew. This generally will not harm the plant if treated rapidly. Weekly mistings of neem oil will prevent this whitish mildew from forming.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q. Is blue thistle invasive in nature?

A. Because of their tendency to spread seed quite easily, a few forms of echinops are invasive. Probably the best known of these is Echinops sphaerocephalus. That species is considered invasive in parts of the United States. It’s also a rapid spreader in its native regions of Europe and western Asia.

To prevent invasive spread, remove the flower before it can fully develop seeds. Alternately, place a paper bag over the flower as it starts to fade. Tie a string around the stem to prevent seeds from escaping, then trim off the stem.

Q: How drought-tolerant is this plant?

A: It’s become a very popular plant for xeriscaping in recent years. Very little actual care is required, and virtually no watering except during extreme heat. You can find globe thistle’s popularity rapidly spreading in southern California’s drought-tolerant garden scene!


Easy to care for and enjoyable, this round-flowered perennial is a great addition to your yard. It takes very little to no effort at all to keep this going. Looking for a great plant for that new gardener in your life? Give them a globe thistle and watch them get a green thumb in no time!


The Green Thumbs Behind This Article:

Lorin Nielsen
Lifetime Gardener

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