Fall ID of Hand Drill Fire Starting Stems

“And away they all flew like the DOWN OF A THISTLE.” It’s a familiar line from a Christmas poem generally known as The Night Before Christmas. I grew up hearing it and have read it to my kids and to grand-kids. More than one child has asked, What is THAT?

I am trying to provide an identification guide for some of these as they progress through the summer and on into fall. Once they lose their flowers and foliage it becomes harder to ID them, but if you see them as they go full-cycle and dry up, it becomes much easier.

“And away they all flew like the DOWN OF A THISTLE.” It’s a familiar line from a Christmas poem generally known as The Night Before Christmas. I grew up hearing it and have read it to my kids and to grand-kids. More than one child has asked, What is THAT? The pictures are of what I have always called Bull Thistle. No it is not an expletive, however those may sometimes be heard by anyone who grabs the thorny stems. It is pretty. It has herbal medicine uses. There are half a dozen or more varieties of thistle, one which has long been held to possess liver healing properties and sells for big bucks as a herb (Milk Thistle).
The prickly pods below the flowers will soon turn to wispy seeds attached to light and fuzzy threads of DOWN, thus DOWN Of A THISTLE, that become airborne and scatter in the wind.
For my purposes, now is a good time to stake out patches of these for making friction fire using only the hands to turn a dry stem spindle, known as the HAND DRILL METHOD. There are lots of other roadside stems that will work, too. In this same patch is Mullein, Giant Goldenrod (Solidago), and Wild Sunflowers–all of which work well when dry. But this one has the distinction of being among the very last standing as usable in the cold of winter or even early Spring. By then the thorns have decomposed and are harmless. It can be used earlier as long as it is dead dry and if you can deal with the thorns, which must be cut off and the stem scraped smooth. I did a video of making fire using one of these stems in the snow last winter. It took less than a minute of spinning.
The thistle down can be used as tinder, even in a fire piston if you hold your mouth right.

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Everyone knows Goldenrod,seen below. It is blamed for a lot of Hay Fever, but it is really the ragweed that it grows alongside of that’s the culprit. And while ragweed is not much use for fire making, Goldenrod is among my favorites. There are a bunch of different kinds.  They all look a lot the same to me, but those that grow tall and straight and have thick stems are the ones I look for.

Above, the Sunflowers blossoms and leaves are drying up now, leaving thick long stems that make ideal spindles. They can be harvested and allowed to dry for practice later, or wait until they. are dry. Dig or pull up the edible roots while you are at it. Also known as Jerusalem Artichoke, they are said to have been cultivated by Native Americans for their potatoe-ish tuber roots. Among all the wild weed offerings, you can usually find SOMETHING that will work, pretty much any time or season. A stem of Flea-bane (I think) is pictured next to the harvested Sunflower Stem below. It is yet another usable stem.

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As you can see, butterflies like thistle flowers, too.

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