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Musk Thistle

Carduus nutans

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Plant Profile

Flowering Months:
Asteraceae (Daisy)
Also in this family:
Alpine Blue Sow-thistle, Alpine Cotula, Alpine Fleabane, Alpine Saw-wort, Annual Ragweed, Annual Sunflower, Argentine Fleabane, Autumn Hawkbit, Autumn Oxeye, Beaked Hawksbeard, Beggarticks, Bilbao Fleabane, Black Knapweed, Black-eyed Susan, Blanketflower, Blue Fleabane, Blue Globe-thistle, Bristly Oxtongue, Broad-leaved Cudweed, Broad-leaved Ragwort, Brown Knapweed, Butterbur, Buttonweed, Cabbage Thistle, Canadian Fleabane, Canadian Goldenrod, Carline Thistle, Chalk Knapweed, Chamois Ragwort, Changing Michaelmas Daisy, Chicory, Chinese Mugwort, Chinese Ragwort, Coltsfoot, Common Blue Sow-thistle, Common Cat's-ear, Common Cudweed, Common Daisy, Common Dandelion, Common Fleabane, Common Goldenrod, Common Groundsel, Common Michaelmas Daisy, Common Mugwort, Common Ragwort, Common Wormwood, Coneflower, Confused Michaelmas Daisy, Corn Chamomile, Corn Marigold, Cornflower, Cotton Thistle, Cottonweed, Creeping Thistle, Daisy Bush, Dwarf Cudweed, Dwarf Thistle, Early Goldenrod, Eastern Groundsel, Eastern Leopardsbane, Elecampane, English Hawkweed, Fen Ragwort, Feverfew, Field Fleawort, Field Wormwood, Fox and Cubs, French Tarragon, Gallant Soldier, Garden Lettuce, Giant Butterbur, Glabrous-headed Hawkweed, Glandular Globe-thistle, Glaucous Michaelmas Daisy, Globe Artichoke, Globe-thistle, Goat's Beard, Golden Ragwort, Golden Samphire, Goldilocks Aster, Grass-leaved Goldenrod, Great Lettuce, Greater Burdock, Greater Knapweed, Grey-headed Hawkweed, Guernsey Fleabane, Hairless Blue Sow-thistle, Hairless Leptinella, Hairy Michaelmas Daisy, Harpur Crewe's Leopardsbane, Hawkweed Oxtongue, Heath Cudweed, Heath Groundsel, Hemp Agrimony, Highland Cudweed, Hoary Mugwort, Hoary Ragwort, Hybrid Knapweed, Intermediate Burdock, Irish Fleabane, Jersey Cudweed, Jerusalem Artichoke, Lance-leaved Hawkweed, Lavender-cotton, Leafless Hawksbeard, Least Lettuce, Leopardplant, Leopardsbane, Leptinella, Lesser Burdock, Lesser Hawkbit, Lesser Sunflower, London Bur-marigold, Magellan Ragwort, Marsh Cudweed, Marsh Hawksbeard, Marsh Ragwort, Marsh Sow-thistle, Marsh Thistle, Meadow Thistle, Melancholy Thistle, Mexican Fleabane, Milk Thistle, Mountain Everlasting, Mouse-ear Hawkweed, Narrow-leaved Cudweed, Narrow-leaved Hawkweed, Narrow-leaved Michaelmas Daisy, Narrow-leaved Ragwort, New England Hawkweed, New Zealand Holly, Nipplewort, Nodding Bur-marigold, Northern Hawksbeard, Norwegian Mugwort, Oxeye Daisy, Oxford Ragwort, Pearly Everlasting, Perennial Cornflower, Perennial Ragweed, Perennial Sow-thistle, Perennial Sunflower, Pineapple Mayweed, Plantain-leaved Leopardsbane, Ploughman's Spikenard, Plymouth Thistle, Pontic Blue Sow-thistle, Pot Marigold, Prickly Lettuce, Prickly Sow-thistle, Purple Coltsfoot, Rayed Tansy, Red Star Thistle, Red-seeded Dandelion, Red-tipped Cudweed, Robin's Plantain, Roman Chamomile, Rough Cocklebur, Rough Hawkbit, Rough Hawksbeard, Russian Lettuce, Safflower, Salsify, Saw-wort, Scented Mayweed, Scentless Mayweed, Sea Aster, Sea Mayweed, Sea Wormwood, Seaside Daisy, Shaggy Mouse-ear Hawkweed, Shaggy Soldier, Shasta Daisy, Shetland Mouse-ear Hawkweed, Shrub Ragwort, Sicilian Chamomile, Silver Ragwort, Slender Mugwort, Slender Thistle, Small Cudweed, Small Fleabane, Smooth Cat's-ear, Smooth Hawksbeard, Smooth Sow-thistle, Sneezeweed, Sneezewort, Spear Thistle, Spotted Cat's-ear, Spotted Hawkweed, Sticky Groundsel, Stinking Chamomile, Stinking Hawksbeard, Tall Fleabane, Tall Mouse-ear Hawkweed, Tansy, Thin-leaved Sunflower, Trifid Bur-marigold, Tuberous Thistle, Tyneside Leopardplant, Viper's Grass, Wall Lettuce, Welsh Groundsel, Welted Thistle, White Butterbur, White Buttons, Willdenow's Leopardsbane, Winter Heliotrope, Wood Burdock, Wood Ragwort, Woody Fleabane, Woolly Thistle, Yarrow, Yellow Chamomile, Yellow Fox and Cubs, Yellow Oxeye, Yellow Star Thistle, Yellow Thistle, York Groundsel
Life Cycle:
Maximum Size:
1 metre tall
Fields, grassland, meadows, roadsides, wasteland.

Purple, many petals
Rayless nodding flowerheads, up to 5cm. Reddish-purple with brown bracts.
A small achene (seed), reaching 5mm across.
The basal leaves reach a maximum of 25cm long and 10cm wide. The stem leaves are arranged alternate along the stems. The dark green, lobed leaves are very spiny.
Flowers are sweet and musky.
Other Names:
Bristle Thistle, Buck Thistle, Nodding Plumeless Thistle, Nodding Thistle.
Frequency (UK):
Occasionally seen  

Other Information


Carduus nutans, also known as musk thistle or nodding thistle, is a biennial or short-lived perennial herb native to Europe and Asia. It is typically found in grasslands, meadows, and disturbed areas such as roadsides and pastures. The plant has a tall, spiky stem and produces large, pink or purple flower heads. The plant is considered a weed and invasive in many countries, it is known to outcompete native vegetation and reduce forage for livestock. It is also toxic to animals and can cause liver damage if ingested in large amounts. Control methods include mechanical removal, grazing, and the use of herbicides.


Musk Thistle (Carduus nutans), also known as Nodding Thistle, is a biennial weed native to Europe and Asia, but now found throughout North America. It is a highly invasive species that can grow up to six feet tall, with deep roots and a spreading rosette of leaves. The leaves are deeply lobed and covered with stiff spines, making them unpalatable to most herbivores.

The plant gets its name from the musky odor produced by the leaves and stems when they are crushed. This odor is produced by compounds known as terpenes, which are also responsible for the plant's unpalatability. Musk thistle produces a large, showy, purple flower head on a solitary stem that can reach up to a foot in length. The flower head is surrounded by spiny bracts, and the flowers themselves are pollinated by a variety of insects, including bees and butterflies.

Musk thistle is a highly invasive species that can quickly take over natural and agricultural habitats. It is most commonly found in grasslands, pastures, and along roadsides and fences. The plant's deep roots and ability to outcompete native vegetation make it a formidable adversary, and it can quickly spread through its extensive seed production. A single musk thistle plant can produce up to 30,000 seeds, which can remain viable for several years.

Controlling musk thistle can be a challenge, as it has developed a number of adaptations that make it resistant to many common herbicides. The best method of control is to prevent the spread of the plant through early detection and removal, as well as by controlling the spread of its seeds. This can be accomplished through regular monitoring and removal of infestations, as well as by using physical barriers such as mulch or landscape fabric to prevent seed germination.

In areas where musk thistle has already become established, a combination of cultural and chemical control methods may be necessary. This may include the use of herbicides, such as glyphosate, as well as physical removal of the plant and its roots. In some cases, biological control methods may also be used, such as the release of the thistle head weevil (Rhinocyllus conicus), which feeds on the plant's flower head and seeds.

Musk thistle is a highly invasive species that can quickly take over natural and agricultural habitats, and it can be difficult to control. Early detection and removal, as well as the use of cultural and chemical control methods, are the best ways to prevent the spread of this weed. If you suspect that musk thistle has become established in your area, it is important to take action quickly to prevent further spread and protect the health of your local ecosystem.

In addition to the physical and chemical control methods, there are also some cultural control methods that can be effective in controlling musk thistle. These methods include promoting the growth of native vegetation through proper soil management, reducing soil disturbance, and promoting healthy grazing practices. This can help to create a more competitive environment in which musk thistle is less likely to thrive.

Another important aspect of musk thistle control is to educate land managers, farmers, and the general public about the importance of preventing the spread of this invasive weed. This can be done through educational programs, public awareness campaigns, and the distribution of informational materials. Land managers and farmers can also play a critical role in controlling musk thistle by implementing best management practices, such as proper land management, rotation of crops, and the use of non-invasive plant species in their fields.

In some cases, musk thistle can also be used for ornamental purposes. While this may seem counter-intuitive, the showy purple flower heads of the musk thistle can add visual interest to gardens and landscapes. However, care must be taken to prevent the spread of this weed to natural habitats and to other agricultural lands.

One of the benefits of controlling musk thistle is that it can help to improve the health and diversity of native habitats. By reducing the number of musk thistle plants in an area, native vegetation is able to thrive and support a greater number of native wildlife species. This in turn can provide numerous benefits, including increased soil stability, improved water quality, and greater resilience to the effects of climate change.

In addition to improving the health of natural habitats, controlling musk thistle can also benefit agricultural lands. By reducing the number of musk thistle plants in fields and pastures, farmers are able to increase the productivity of their land and improve the health of their livestock. This can lead to increased profits, improved soil health, and greater sustainability in the long-term.

One of the challenges of controlling musk thistle is that it can be difficult to identify in its early stages of growth. However, there are a number of resources available to help land managers and farmers identify this weed and take action to prevent its spread. This can include field guides, online resources, and training programs. In addition, many state and federal agencies have programs in place to provide technical and financial assistance to landowners and farmers to help control invasive weeds.

Controlling musk thistle is important for the health of natural habitats and agricultural lands. By taking action to prevent the spread of this invasive weed, we can help to promote greater biodiversity, improve soil health, and support the long-term sustainability of our local ecosystems. Whether you are a land manager, farmer, or concerned citizen, there are a number of ways in which you can help to control musk thistle and protect our local habitats and wildlife.

Another important aspect of controlling musk thistle is early detection and rapid response. This involves identifying new infestations as early as possible and taking immediate action to prevent the spread of the weed. Early detection can be accomplished through regular monitoring, citizen reporting, and collaboration between land managers and local communities.

Once a musk thistle infestation has been identified, it is important to take rapid action to prevent its spread. This can involve removing the plants by hand, using chemical control methods, or a combination of both. In some cases, it may also be necessary to implement additional control measures, such as the use of barriers or the establishment of buffer zones around infested areas.

It is also important to monitor musk thistle populations over time to ensure that control efforts are effective and to detect any new infestations as soon as possible. Regular monitoring can also provide valuable information on the biology and ecology of musk thistle, which can help to inform future control efforts.

In addition to controlling musk thistle, it is also important to prevent the introduction of this weed to new areas. This can involve taking steps to prevent the spread of musk thistle seeds and plants, such as cleaning equipment and vehicles before entering new areas, and avoiding the intentional introduction of this weed for ornamental purposes.

Controlling musk thistle is a complex and ongoing process that requires the cooperation and collaboration of land managers, farmers, and local communities. By taking a proactive approach to musk thistle management, including early detection, rapid response, and ongoing monitoring, we can help to prevent the spread of this invasive weed and protect our local habitats and wildlife.

Another important aspect of musk thistle management is to understand the root system of this weed. Musk thistle has a deep taproot that can penetrate several feet into the soil, making it difficult to control through physical or chemical means. Understanding the root system of musk thistle is important because it can help to inform the most effective control methods.

For example, some control methods, such as mowing or cutting, can be effective in controlling the above-ground portion of musk thistle, but they may not be effective in controlling the root system. On the other hand, chemical control methods, such as herbicides, can be more effective in controlling the entire plant, including the root system. However, it is important to use herbicides responsibly and in accordance with label instructions, to avoid adverse impacts on non-target species and the environment.

Another important aspect of musk thistle management is to understand the life cycle of this weed. Musk thistle has a biennial life cycle, meaning that it takes two years to complete its life cycle. During the first year, musk thistle plants develop a rosette of leaves close to the ground. During the second year, the plant sends up a stem that produces flowers and seeds. Understanding the life cycle of musk thistle is important because it can inform the timing of control efforts.

For example, control efforts are most effective when musk thistle plants are in the rosette stage, before they have produced seeds. By removing musk thistle plants in the rosette stage, land managers and farmers can prevent the production of seeds and help to break the life cycle of this weed.

In conclusion, musk thistle management requires a comprehensive and integrated approach that considers the root system, life cycle, and ecology of this weed. By understanding these aspects of musk thistle, land managers, farmers, and local communities can take more informed and effective action to control this invasive weed and protect our local habitats and wildlife.


Musk Thistle filmed in Orford, Suffolk on the 29th June 2022.


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Distribution Map

Reproduced by kind permission of the BSBI.

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