Cut thistles in May,/ They’ll grow in a day;/ Cut them in June,/ That is too soon; Cut them in July,/ Then they will die. — Mother Goose rhyme

Italian thistles in my field.

Mother Goose rhymes were, of course, originally penned 300 years ago in the more-northern latitudes of England and France, where the growing season starts later. Thistles in West Marin should probably be cut a month or two earlier. I know because I have spent much of the last week cutting thistles, as well as pulling and digging them up.

It has been an unpleasant task, and despite my wearing work gloves, my hands are now full of prickles. Yet I did manage to fill a green-waste container to overflowing, and I’ve already piled up more thistles for the next garbage pickup in two weeks.

There has to be an easier way to do this, I thought, so I did what everyone with an existential question does this days: I looked for the answer online. As it turns out, the Marin County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office has a helpful website, which I used to identify the type of thistle I was fighting: Italian thistles.

“Italian thistle, from the Mediterranean, was accidentally introduced to California in the 1930s,” the Agricultural Commissioner’s Office notes. “The flower heads are small, pink, with five to twenty heads per cluster.”

Having identified these prickly invaders, my next question was how to easily get rid of them. Looking around, I found a Livestock for Landscapes website that said, “Cows eat distaff and Italian thistle.” The site included a link to a YouTube video featuring Chileno Valley ranchers Mike and Sally Gale.

The ranchers had been interviewed four years ago just as they began experimenting with cattle to control distaff thistles. The tall, woody thistle is rapidly spreading throughout Chileno Valley, ruining pastures.

A distaff thistle. (Marin County Agricultural Commissioner’s photo)

“Distaff originated in the Mediterranean and is an aggressive rangeland pest, recognized by its spiny yellow flower heads,” the Agricultural Commissioner’s Office reports. “Their large, sharp spines can injure the eyes and mouths of livestock that are forced to graze within dense populations. Distaff causes lameness in animals whose hooves have been penetrated by its spines.”

Mike and Sally being old friends, I called them to find out how their experiment with using cattle to eliminate distaff thistles had gone. Not well, Mike told me. He and Sally had tried the Livestock for Landscape’s technique that began with cattle in a pen. The ranchers put cut thistles in a tub and poured molasses on them to get their livestock interested.

That part of the experiment worked, but when the cattle were put out to graze, they ignored thistles in their pasture, he said. So what was the solution? Mike said the Marin County Fire Department for the past two years has conducted controlled burns in the pasture, and that has greatly reduced the amount of distaff thistles.

My thistles, however, are Italian, and Mike said cattle will eat Italian thistles and even seek them out. That would seem to make my thistle problem easy to eliminate. All I would need to do is acquire a few cattle, as well as install a few fences and gates.

As for cutting thistles, Mike agreed with Mother Goose. If I cut them too early in the spring, they’ll grow back, but if I wait until they’re full grown, they won’t. The trick, I gather, is timing. Once thistles flower, they produce seeds that the winds disperse — even if the thistles have been cut down — so one needs to act fast if his thistles are starting to bloom. Which is why I’ve been cutting thistles in recent days and disposing of them in my green-waste container.

However, as I told Mike, even when I’m wearing work gloves, the thistle spikes manage to work their way through the back of the gloves and into my hands. The same thing had happened to Mike. The solution, he said, are gloves totally covered with tough leather: “They’re called welders’ gloves.”

“I think I have a pair,” I told him. “They’re from a World War II naval shipyard.” As it happens, my parents after the war had bought two pairs to use in gardening from an Army-Navy surplus store. And sure enough, when I looked in a basement cabinet, I found an old welder’s glove — but only one for the right hand.

After more digging around in the cabinet, however, I found a second glove. Unfortunately, when I went to put it on, it too was for the right hand. There was a bit of cursing, but then I resumed my search and eventually found a left-handed glove in a tangle of twine. More important, when I used these almost-70-year-old gloves in my next assault on thistles, I got through it unscathed.

So what’s the moral? It takes gear tough enough to defeat Prime Minister Hideki Tojo’s navy if one is to escape being wounded when attacking West Marin’s thistles.