Thorns and Thistles

Defense and Survival Adaptations

by Ginger Allen on April 27, 2011
Featured in Answers in Depth


Scripture contains many references to plants and agriculture as examples of spiritual realities.

The original creation of the earth was complete: “God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25). The world around us has changed from the time of the Garden of Eden and post-Flood. The change was a result of the Fall of man—an event which altered the world and God’s original creation.1 Immediately following this event God spoke to Adam, saying, “Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat of it’: cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the herb of the field” (Genesis 3:17-18).

And then several unique conditions were at work after the Flood. These major changes were probably not complete at the end of the Flood but continued into the post-Flood world, perhaps for centuries. One problem was the instability of the continents, and another problem was the unstable climate. The post-Flood oceans were exceptionally warm and probably generated massive hurricanes which could have produced incredible erosion in the post-Flood world, where little vegetation was established to hold the soil, and where the Flood sediments had not yet fully hardened.2 All the created plants and animals had to adapt to a changing new post-Flood world: new growing conditions, new diseases, and new competitions for essential needs.

God designed the created kinds with genetic information that could be turned on when required to adapt to new environments. Each cell expresses, or turns on, only a fraction of its genes. The rest of the genes are repressed, or turned off. The process of turning genes on and off is known as gene regulation. Differences in gene expression rather than gene structure may be primarily responsible for successful plant adaptation.3 Adaptation implies changes in the genetic makeup that allow an organism to survive better in a given environment. With successful (random) changes, an organism is better enabled to pass on this more successful genetic material, which improves the viability of its offspring and increases the presence of these successful genes in the gene pool overall. The changes do not add information; they alter genetic information. In other words, the Creator continues to accomplish His purpose for organisms after creation, not by creating new kinds, but by working through existing components that were designed during Creation Week4 or by changes that have taken place since the Fall. We are familiar with the plight of animals and man, but what about plants, which provide the oxygen we breathe and much of what we eat? The following examines plant defense mechanisms in more detail to improve our understanding of the fallen world1 in which we currently exist and how to understand the weeds and thorns that come into both our spiritual and physical lives.

Plants have the same defense mechanisms as animals. Animals have sharp spines (fish fins, snapper turtle shells, alligator tails, spiny lizards, starfish), horns and antlers (many hoofed animals), sharp teeth (carnivores, snakes, fish), sharp quills (porcupines, hedgehogs, sea urchins), and claws to defend themselves. Do plants have thorns just so we won’t pick their flowers? No, plants have defense mechanisms against animals who want to eat them (herbivores). Plant physical defense mechanisms include thorns, spines, prickles, tough tissues, sticky resins, milky sap, and short bristly hairs. In addition, plants have developed chemical defenses to avoid being eaten and to deter other plants from invading their growing area.


Figure 1. Diagram of a true plant thorn. Drawing adapted by Ginger Allen

Botanically speaking: thorns (figure 1, example hawthorn ) are modified, sharp-pointed stems occurring at the base of a leaf or ends of twigs. Spines (example Barberry, cacti) are modified leaves or parts of leaves and are generally thinner and shorter than thorns. Prickles (example rose stem) are slender outgrowths of the plant outer layer (epidermis). Plant thorns were brought into the world after man sinned (see Scripture above). In the Bible, fourteen different Hebrew (Strong’s5 #6975, 6791, 7063, 5544, 6796, 4534, 2312, 5518, 7898, 5285, 2336) and Greek (Strong’s # 173, 942, 4647) words are used to describe weeds, though they are often translated as “thorns,” “thistles,” “briers,” and the like. Therefore we will be discussing this group of prickly plants as a general category that encompasses not just the strict thorns in the botanical sense, but also prickles, spines, thistles, nettles, thornbushes and briers.

Thorns were a physical change that was passed along to new generations. There had to be genetic alterations. Some of these changes could have been immediate, and others could have been slower in revealing themselves.1

When plants or animals live in stressful environments (such as extreme wind, cold, heat, or dryness; low nutrients; acidic soils; etc.), they adapt physically in order to survive. Cacti can survive in the desert by having reduced leaves, and short or absent branches. Many desert plants have developed spines instead of leaves. Growing spines instead of leaves allows the plant to survive with less water and keeps animals from nibbling the water-filled plant tissues and luscious fruits.

Examples of Various Types of Plants with thorns or spines6

Palms (family Arecaceae)


Figure 2. Date Palm showing thorns
Image Source: Stan Shebs Wikimedia Commons

The majority of palms have unbranched stems, and are really more like giant grasses, in growth form, than trees. Many palm stems are armed with stout spines or prickles. The sharp spines of certain palms (Maximiliana maripa) were used for poison darts by some of the South American tribes. The palm tree of the Bible is likely the date palm (Phoenix dactylifera, figure 2), which is still found in large numbers throughout Syria. The date palm tree bears spines four to six inches long. Note how they jut out from the base of the leaf-stalks.


Figure 3. Acacia seyal showing thorn-like spines
Image Source: Paul H. W. Taubert Wikimedia Commons

Acacia trees (Isaiah 41:19) (family Fabaceae), also known as thorn trees

The word acacia means point or thorn. These trees often bear spines, especially when growing in arid regions. The Ark of the Covenant, as well as the furniture of the Tabernacle, are said to have been made from timber of Acacia seyal (figure 3), which yields the Shittim wood of the Bible. (Exodus 25:5,10,13; 26:15,26; 27:1,6; Deuteronomy 10:3). This tree yields a valuable, hard, close-grained timber that is somewhat insect resistant.

Crown of Thorns

One of the most dramatic symbols of Christianity (other than the Cross) is the crown of thorns that Jesus wore before his crucifixion in Matthew 27:29 (KJV) “ . . . And when they had platted a crown of thorns, they put [it] upon his head, and a reed in his right hand: and they bowed the knee before him, and mocked him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews!


Figure 4. Jerusalem Crown of Thorns
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

The thorny crown was part of the act of humiliation carried out by the Roman soldiers who were dressing Jesus like a mock-king. The exact Crown of Thorns plant is somewhat unsure. Many state that Paliurus spina-christi, family Rhamnaceae (figure 4) is the Bible plant.7 The crown was designed to be painful. Thorns were part of the Curse (Genesis 3:18), and they often represent sin in Scripture. Therefore Christ, being made a curse for us, and dying to remove the Curse, felt the pain of those thorns. Jesus was the answer to the type of sacrifice God asked of Abraham. A ram was caught in the thicket (a thicket or bramble is a dense growth of trees or shrubs usually with thorns8), and so was offered up instead of Isaac (Genesis 22:13). God provided his Son, the Lamb, as the perfect and final sin offering (Matthew 5:17).

Trees with Trunk Thorns

Honey locust trunk thorns

Figure 5. Honey locust trunk thorns
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Honey locust, (figure 5, family Fabaceae, Gleditsia triacanthos) is a large, quick-growing, handsome tree, except for its thorns.

The Floss Silk tree (figure 6, Chorisia speciosa, family Bombacaceae), a native of southern Brazil and Argentina and a popular tree planted around Los Angeles, California, has a trunk that is studded with persistent, stout “spines.” Officially they are trunk prickles, bark prickles, or stem emergences.

Floss Silk tree trunk “thorns”

Figure 6. Floss Silk tree trunk “thorns”
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Citrus Trees

Lime, lemon, and orange trees (family Rutaceae, genus Citrus) usually bear true thorns at the side of the bud in the axils of the leaves.

Berry Shrubs

American gooseberry (family Grossulariaceae, Ribes uva-crispa) stems are densely bristly, with one or more spines at each axil.

Rasberries (family Rosacea, genus Rubus), the wine berry, (Rubus phoenicolasius) grow in groups of three. The canes have fine, red spine-like bristles, which resemble red hair.

The Blackberry (genus Rubus) is often called a bramble because of its dense arching stems and curved spines. The fruit is a favorite for desserts, jams, and wine. Several Rubus species are called blackberry. Blackberry shrubs will tolerate poor soil, including wastelands.

Rose Family (Rosacea)

Rose shrubs and vines (genus Rosa) have stems that are often armed with sharp prickles (not true thorns). Rose prickles are usually sickle-shaped and aid the rose in climbing over or up other vegetation. Despite the presence of prickles, roses are frequently browsed by deer, except for species Rosa rugosa and R. pimpinellifolia, which have densely packed spines.

Multiflora Rose (Rosa multiflora) is native to eastern Asia. In eastern North America it was planted to conserve soil and to attract wildlife, however it has become an invasive species. This rose can form nearly impenetrable thickets that displace native understory plants. In grazing areas, Multiflora is considered a serious pest, only eaten by goats.

There are numerous hawthorn or thornapple shrubs/trees (Crataegus species), most of which have thorns and apple-like fruits called haws. A Common Hawthorn (C. monogyna) found at Glastonbury Abbey in England was described in the early sixteenth century because it flowered twice in one year, once on “old wood” in spring, and once on “new wood” in the winter. The winter flowering was deemed “miraculous.” A cutting of the “Holy Thorn” was sent to the Queen of Great Britain each Christmas until 1991 when the tree died.


Figure 7. Artichoke leaf and stem spines
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Globe Artichoke (figure 7, family Asteraceae)

Cynara scolymus is really a spiny thistle native to the Mediterranean. A Greek physician (Pedanius Dioscorides 40–90 A.D.) wrote about artichokes at the time of Christ. While traveling with the Roman army of Emperor Nero, he collected information on medicinal remedies and wrote The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides. The Dioscorides herbal guide was later translated into Latin as De Materia Medica, and remained the authority in medicinal plants for over 1500 years.


Figure 8. Cat’s Claw thorns
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Cat’s Claw (Uncaria tomentosa, family Rubiacea, figure 8)

This woody vine, found in the tropical jungles of South and Central America, derives its name from its claw-shaped thorns. The thorns curve inward along the stem and allow the plant to climb up to 30 meters into the tree canopy. This plant is used by herbalists for a variety of ailments.

Barberry (Berberis species, family Berberidaceae)

These plants have long and short shoots. The leaves on long shoots are three-spined thorns; the bud in the axil of each thorn develops a short shoot with photosynthetic leaves. These plants form impenetrable barriers.

TMonkey Cup lid spines

Figure 9. Monkey Cup lid spines
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Carnivorous plants

These derive most of their nutrients from trapping insects and arthropods. Monkey Cups (Nepenthes bicalcarata, figure 9) have two strong sharp spines that overhang the pitcher-cavity and project downward from the top of the plant neck. These spines keep small mammals like the lemur (Tarsius spectrum) from robbing trapped insects in the pitcher. When the lemur tries to get in, it is often caught by the nape of the neck. The Albany pitcher plant (Cephalotus follicularis), found in Western Australia, also has a thorny overhang to the opening, preventing trapped insects from climbing out.


Cacti have a fleshy, green, photosynthetic stem, and leaves modified as spines. Only one group of cacti, Pereskia, has true leaves. According to a research botanist, the conversion of cactus leaves into spines did not involve a mere reduction of the flat leaf surface and then further reduction of midrib and petiole (stalk that attaches the leaf to stem). Instead the process involved the suppression of all leaf-cell type genes and activation of genes that control formation of fibers, the deposition of harder secondary cell walls (lignification), and then programmed cell death.9 Does this suppression of certain genes and activation of certain other genes sound familiar? It should. The capability and adaptability of God’s created kinds of plants and animals were described at the beginning of this article.


Figure 10. Mammilaria Cactus Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Most cactus spines occur in clusters and some have spines modified as coarse hair. Many cacti are protected from full sunlight by a dense covering of hair-like spines (Epithelantha bokei). Cactus spines come in a wide variety of lengths, widths, textures, and stiffnesses. The central spines are usually long, strong, rigid, and brightly colored to deter grazers. The radial spines are thin, flexible and often white to reflect sunlight away from the plant. The combination of a shallow root system and hooked spines facilitates cactus dispersal. A small-bodied cactus with hooked (Mammillaria species, figure 10) or barbed spines (Cholla species) can be ripped out of the ground or from the main plant body by large animals passing by (hooks attach to the fur). The transported plant is eventually discarded by the animal and readily takes root in its new location.10 We cannot discuss all the unique characteristics of cacti but, strangely enough, all cacti produce flowers. Some blossoms are showy and brightly colored providing a lovely contrast in harsh desert landscape.


Figure 11. Tropical Soda Apple
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Invasive species

Invasive species can change ecological relationships among native species and affect the natural balance of an ecosystem. A species is “invasive” if it has been introduced by human action, establishes a viable population, and spreads. Two examples of invasive plant species are (1) the Yellow star thistle (Centaurea solstitialis), which is non-palatable to cattle due to its thorns and spines, as well as (2) the Tropical soda apple (Solanum viarum, figure 11), a native of Africa. Tropical Soda apple has invaded tropical pastures of southeastern United States. The fruit (looking like a miniature watermelon) contains 200-400 seeds and is eaten by cattle and wildlife, spreading the plant quickly.

“Soils” that support thorns and thistles

Scripture contains many references to plants and agriculture as examples of spiritual realities. Jesus told a parable about four kinds of soil. “Behold, a sower went forth to sow; and when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up: some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth: and when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them: But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold” (Matthew 13:4–8, KJV, emphasis added).

Many thorny plants, nettles, brambles and thistles are considered to be weeds. These are usually the first invaders of broken-up or abandoned (fallow) soil. We know the reason for this is because many of these plants are the product of cursed ground (Genesis 3). Weeds have the ability to grow in harsh conditions and have abundant seeds with well-engineered dispersal mechanisms for populating open areas. Weeds will steal the essential nutrients from the soil the intended crop requires. By definition, weeds overgrow or choke out more desirable plants.

I hope when you read the parable of the sower you consider that hearing and understanding God’s Word is foundational to good “soil” and how well-established our roots can be. The person who has good soil and guards against weeds will prosper. Proverbs 22:5 states, “Thorns and snares are in the way of the perverse; He who guards his soul will be far from them.” And just as soils become deficient in nutrients, and are thus augmented by farmers, we must “abide in the Word” (John 8:31).

If your “ground” is being invaded by irritating weeds or painful thorns, change it. Hosea 10:12 states, “Sow to yourselves in righteousness, reap in mercy; break up your fallow ground for it is time to seek the Lord, till he come and rain righteousness upon you.”

Planting the Gospel: Good Soil, Deep Roots, and Good Fruits

Receive God’s Gift, Understand the Source and Let it Take Root

Accept the imperishable seed (1 Peter 1:22–23) and the living water (the Lord Jesus Christ, John 4:10–14), remove the thorns from your life, and give yourself completely over to Jesus, the main vine (John 15:1) to be supported (Colossians 2:19) and to grow (Ephesians 4:15). Practically speaking, attend a Bible-believing church to hear and understand God’s Word. Join Bible study groups and spend time with fellow Christians, discussing truths of Scripture, “sharpening” each other (Proverbs 27:17).

James discussed some of the benefits of growing strong in God’s Word. “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace” (James 3:17–18, KJV).

Become a Sower of the Seed

Like God told the prophet Ezekiel, we need to be brave. “And thou, son of man, be not afraid of them, neither be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns be with thee, and thou dost dwell among scorpions: be not afraid of their words, nor be dismayed at their looks, though they be a rebellious house” (Ezekiel 2:6, KJV).

If we stop sowing the seed there will be no new crop; no more crops to harvest. If we stop studying, we will not grow. God’s Word is purposeful, so we should use it for ourselves and for others. Isaiah 55:10–11 states, “For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater: so shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it” (KJV).

God, who gives the seed for new crop, also gives bread to the sower. If you labor for Him, He will multiply the seed that you have sown, and increase your fruit. Paul wrote, “Now he that ministereth seed to the sower both minister bread for your food, and multiply your seed sown, and increase the fruits of your righteousness (2 Corinthians 9:10; John 15:5, KJV).

Giving thanks and prayer

Finally, pray for each other (James 5:16), always (1 Thess 5:17), and for everything (Philippians 4:6). Ephesians 5:20 reveals we should also give “thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

We should be thankful for God’s provision (John 6:11) and for His grace to us and to others (Colossians 1:3–6). And don’t forget to pray for those who are laboring to sow the seed of the Word of God. Jesus said, “Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:38).

Answers in Depth

2011 Volume 6


  1. McIntosh, Andy and Bodie Hodge. 2006. How Did Defense/Attack Structures Come About? The New Answers Book, pp. 384. Green Forest, Arkansas: Master Books.
  2. Whitmore, John. 2008. Continuing Catastrophes. Answers Magazine, 3 No. 4:70–73.
  3. von Korff, Maria. 2011. Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research, Cologne,
  4. Hennigan, Tom, Georgia Purdom, and Todd Charles Wood. 2009. Creation’s Hidden Potential. Answers Magazine 4 no. 1:70–75.
  5. Strong, James. 2009. The New Strong's Expanded Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible.
  6. Bailey L. H. 1935. The Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture. New York: The Macmillan Company.
  7. Integrated Taxonomic Information System,
  8. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia,
  9. Mauseth, J.D. Research: Cactus, Online article at:
  10. Dalhousie Collection of Cacti & Other Succulents, Online database at:


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