Teasel is a biennial plant, which means that it germinates in its first year, and flowers in its second. The first year it appears as a rosette of spine-coated leaves, which die in the second year as energy is diverted to growing the tall stem.
Common Teasel is a wild plant, but a 'sub-species' was cultivated from it to form 'Fuller's Teasel', with hooked spines. These worked slightly better for working with cloth, although both plants were used.
The plant can grow to six feet tall and has a spiny stem. The leaves also have spines, hidden on the underside. It flowers between July and October and has hundreds of small purple flowers interspersed with spines on the egg-shaped flower head, opening in bands from the bottom to the top. The base of the flowering head has long, spiny upward-pointing bracts, which in the Common Teasel are straight and in the Fuller's Teasel are curved. It is very attractive to insects, especially bees, butterflies and hoverflies.
Once the flowers have died, they are replaced with seeds, so the plant often attracts small birds - especially goldfinches - who feed on it. It also offers drinking water, as rainwater and dew gathers in pools where the leaves meet the stems. Any seeds that are not eaten will germinate very easily, so this plant is often considered a weed. Once it has set seed, the plant dies.
It will grow in the garden, in rough ground, or by roads, railways, streams, woodland margins and fields. The plant prefers full sun but will cope with partial shade. It grows best on clay soil, often reaching over its usual six feet tall.
The name teasel comes from the Old English, taesun, to tease.
The bristly flower heads, matured and dried, were used by fullers1 to raise the nap on woollen cloth - to 'tease' it. Fuller's Teasel was cultivated from the small teasel to have larger, stiffer and spinier flower heads specifically for the job.
The heads were attached to a wheel, spindle or cylinder, which was spun against the cloth to raise the nap. The spines were more 'elastic' that metal, which was an advantage. If an obstruction was encountered, the spines would break rather than tear the cloth.
Although metal brushes have now replaced teasel, it is still used by some who weave wool by hand, being used to separate and straighten the tangled fibres before spinning. They can also still be found used in the manufacture of billiard table cloths, the coverings of tennis balls, piano felts, the upholstery and roof linings of Rolls-Royces, and Guardsmen's tunics.
The water that collects in the leaves has been claimed to have marvellous cleansing properties, and is considered a good eyewash. However, observation shows that insects often drown in these pools of rainwater and dew. It could be for this reason that the water was also recommended to be a cure for warts and freckles.
A root tea was once used as a diuretic, and to help stimulate the appetite.
The Clothworkers' Company, one of the Great Twelve Livery Companies of the City of London, have a dried teasel flower head on their coat of arms.
The dried flower heads are popular with dried flower arrangers, and can also be used to make hedgehogs.