Musk Thistle

Scientific name: Carduus nutans

Identification and Management

Musk thistle (Carduus nutans) is a non-native biennial forb that reproduces solely by seed. A biennial is a plant that completes its lifecycle within two years. During the first year of growth, musk thistle appears as a rosette in spring or fall. During the second year in mid to late spring, the stem bolts, flowers, sets seed, and the plant dies. Musk thistle produces many flower heads. The terminal, or tallest, shoots flower first, then lateral shoots develop in leaf axils. A robust plant may produce 100 or more flowering heads. A prolific seed producer, musk thistle can produce up to 20,000 seeds per plant, only one-third being viable. Because musk thistle reproduces solely from seed, the key for successful management is to prevent seed production.

Musk thistle can grow up to 6 feet tall. The leaves are spiny, waxy, and dark green in color with a light green midrib. The flowers are purple, large in size (1.5 to 3 inches in diameter), nodding, and terminal. The flowers are surrounded by numerous, lance-shaped, spine-tipped bracts. You can expect to see flowers from late May and June. Seed set usually occurs in June or July and effective management options will then become limited.

Habitats for Musk thistle include disturbed, overgrazed areas. Once a pasture is infested, the livestock carrying capacity for that area is significantly decreased. The plant may also occur on rangeland, roadsides, ditches, riparian areas, and trails.

The key to effective control of Musk thistle is to prevent the plant’s seed production, Planting desirable grasses and forbs to out compete Musk thistle can also be effective. Dense Musk thistle stands can be treated by spot treatments of herbicides and by a persistent mechanical program. Details on the back of this sheet can help to create a management plan compatible with your site ecology.

Musk thistle is designated as a “List B” species in the Colorado Noxious Weed Act. It is required to be either eradicated, contained, or suppressed depending on the local infestations. For more information visit and click on the Noxious Weed Management Program or call Douglas County Weed Management at 303.660.7480.

Integrated Weed Management recommendations

Cultural -
Establishment of selected grasses can be an effective cultural control of Musk thistle. Contact your local Natural Resources Conservation Service for seed mix recommendations. Maintain healthy pastures and prevent bare spots caused by overgrazing. Bareground is prime habitat for weed invasions.

Biological -
Livestock tend to avoid grazing on musk thistle, although horses and cattle have been known to eat the flowerheads. Biological control insects, such as the seed head weevil and the crown weevil are effective on large infestations. When used together, these insects provide fair to good control. Contact the Insectary, Colorado Department of Agriculture to get complete information at 970.464.7916 or visit

Mechanical -
Any mechanical or physical method that severs the root below the soil surface will kill Musk thistle. Mowing or chopping is most effective when Musk thistle plants are at full-bloom. Be sure to properly dispose of the flowering cut plants since seeds can mature and become viable after the plant has been cut down.


NOTE: The following are recommendations for herbicides that can be applied to range and pasturelands. Rates are approximate and based on equipment with an output of 30 gal/acre. Please read label for exact rates. Always read, understand, and follow the label directions. The herbicide label is the LAW!

Picloram (Tordon 22K – *Restricted use chemical*) 1 pint/acre + 0.25% v/v non-ionic surfactant Apply in spring to rosettes.
Aminopyralid (Milestone) 5 fl. oz./acre + 0.25% v/v non-ionic surfactant Apply in spring rosette to early bolting growth stages or in fall to rosettes.
Metsulfuron (Escort XP) 1 oz. product/acre + 0.25% v/v non-ionic surfactant Apply in spring from rosette through very early flower growth stages. (Can prevent viable seed formation if applied no later than the first viable flowers begin to open.)
Chlorsulfuron (Telar) 1 oz. product/acre + 0.25% v/v non-ionic surfactant Apply in spring from rosette through very early flower growth stages. (Can prevent viable seed formation if applied no later than the first viable flowers begin to open.)

Online Services:

Weed Management

Public Works Operations Division

3030 North Industrial Way
P.O. Box 1390
Castle Rock, CO 80109
Phone: 303.660.7480
Fax: 303.814.3319

Office Hours

8:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.