The stemless atractylis is a common plant found in garigue and rocky steppe habitats. It is a Mediterranean species most common in countries along the southern coasts of the Mediterranean as well as in Greece and Sardinia.
This plant has several English names, including ground thistle and distaff thistle. A distaff is a stick or spindle on which wool or flax is wound for spinning. This name is used because the stem of some species of atractylis was used in the past to make distaffs.
Its scientific name is Atractylis gummifera. The word atractylis is derived from the Greek word atractos, meaning spindle or distaff, while gummifera comes from Latin cummis and fero which mean rubber and to carry. The name was given because of the gummy content of the root.
In Maltese, it is known as xewk tal-miskta or xewk tal-mixta.
The stemless atractylis is a species of thistle in the daisy family. The flowers are similar in shape to those of other thistles. They grow close to the ground and, as the plant flowers in late summer or early autumn, they are normally surrounded by dried vegetation.
The stemless atractylis is a very toxic plant, with most of its poison concentrated in a gum found in the root
The ability to produce flowers when few other plants are in bloom gives this species an edge over other plants as it has less competition to attract pollinating insects, especially bees.
The leaves appear in autumn or winter and in late spring they dry up like many other Mediterranean plants. It is only much later that a flower appears.
The plant has a very thick, long root which is used to store nutrients, which are then used to produce the flower at a time of the year when the environment is very hostile for plants.
The stemless atractylis is a very toxic plant, with most of its poison concentrated in a gum found in the root. Eating the root can bring about nausea, vomiting, abdominal pains, convulsions and coma. There have been many cases of persons dying after eating parts of the plant.
In spite of its toxicity, the plant is sometimes eaten and also used in traditional medicine. A resin found in the roots used to be applied to ulcers and burns in both humans and animals.
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