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All About Musk Thistle

As the weather begins to break and the days become warmer, you’re probably gearing up to start gardening. Unfortunately, Musk Thistle is a negative side effect of the lovely weather.

Its puffy purple flowers look beautiful and innocent and attract butterflies and birds to your yard. But it can also wreak havoc on your beloved plants if it grows out of control.

Keep reading to learn more about this weed, how to get rid of it, and if it has any uses!

flowers Musk Thistle. Nodding thistle.Carduus nutas

History of Musk Thistle

Musk Thistle is an invasive species accidentally introduced here in the United States. It is native to Europe, parts of Africa, and parts of Asia.

Some think it may have come from European boats during trading shipments in the 1800s. It’s possible that this weed, or its seeds, were inside the ballast water on these ships.

Ballast water is salt or freshwater that gets pumped into tanks on a boat to aid in stability. When ships empty this water, it can release a range of non-native plants and other organisms into the area’s port.

The scientific name for Musk Thistle is Carduus nutans. But, more common names you might hear include Nodding Thistle or Nodding Plumeless Thistle.

How To Identify Musk Thistle

Close-up of prickly musk thistle plant in bloom in naturalized meadow in northern Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

Musk Thistle can be easily identified, as its flowers look intriguing. They have a beautiful purple color to them, along with a spiked disk look. Each can range from 1-3 inches in diameter and typically bloom from spring to fall.

The tops of these lobed leaves are smooth, while the sides are prickly and have toothed edges. They are typically dark green with a silver sheen and can grow to lengths of up to over 1 foot. Its stems are branch-like, thick, and have some spines of their own.

Why Is Musk Thistle Considered a Weed?

This weed is a biennial plant in most areas. Meaning it will take two years for the plant to grow completely. It might not be much of a nuisance in its first year due to the plant’s small size. But, it will be a problem in the second year, with its spines and spreadable seeds.

The plant will cause injuries, and the weed will spread quickly and take over pastures, fields, and yards. Musk Thistle falls into the weed category due to its unwanted ability to take over large areas. If your beloved plants are in their path, they can die.

Does Musk Thistle Cause Issues?

Delicate pink and purple flowers of Carduus nutans plant, commonly known as musk or nodding plumeless thistle, in a garden in a sunny summer day, national flower and symbol of Scotland, United Kingdom

Although the flowers might be pretty, Musk Thistle can cause multiple problems, especially if you have livestock. The plant’s sharp, hair-like spines can lead to some annoying irritation and itching for you and your pets.

Also, livestock refuses to eat this weed, as it’s unpalatable to them. This will lead to picky grazing, allowing the weed to grow out of control in untouched areas. And if it gets into your yard, your plants can weaken, as it is a nutrient, sunlight, and water hog.

How Does Musk Thistle Spread?

Most of the seed dispersal takes place due to the wind. After the flowers bloom, the seeds (like dandelion weeds) have little white, fluffy hairs on them. So, when the wind blows, the seeds will release from the flower head and go wherever the breeze takes them.

How To Get Rid of Musk Thistle

Trying to get rid of Musk Thistle can be a pain because it’s hard to remove manually. The spikes can get stuck in your hands, and the taproot system travels deep into the soil. With this in mind, here are your removal options.

Natural Ways

Dig Them Up

Since pulling the weeds by hand isn’t feasible, you’ll need some weeding tools to help you. Your aim is to cut the root system below the soil to prevent the plant from regrowing.

You’ll need to dig your hoe or shovel underneath the plant firmly to do this. This should sever the root system and allow you to easily pull the Musk Thistle plant out.

Mow Them Down

Running over the plants before they bloom with your lawn mower can also help control the spread. You must stay on top of this as you notice new growth.

Weed Killers

Thistles, in general, can be stubborn to kill. So, you’ll typically need a thistle-specific weed killer to eliminate this weed. Follow the directions on the bottle, and your yard should be Musk Thistle-free in no time!

Does Musk Thistle Have Any Good Uses?

Herbal medicinal thistle blooming purple flowers

While the plant can cause a ton of damage, there are a few reasons to consider keeping the weed.

Aesthetic Benefits

The flowers of this weed are beautiful to look at. They can bring your yard a bright pop of color if you don’t have many plants.

Not only this, but they attract beautiful wildlife like butterflies and birds. The flowers have tons of nectar, which butterflies love to snack on. And the seeds are great snacks for local birds.

Medicinal Benefits

Some people like to use the leaves and seeds of this weed to create a tonic. It’s possible that this herbal tonic can help cleanse your liver, almost like a detox. However, you should always consult your doctor before trying things like this.


Is Musk Thistle poisonous?

No, this weed isn’t poisonous at all! But keep in mind that the spines can cause irritation and itchiness. You might need topical medication to help with this.

Are bees attracted to Musk Thistle?

Bees love the flowers of thistle plants. They are usually chock full of pollen and nectar, which bees are always looking for. The purple color of the flowers will also attract them, as bees tend to go for bright colors.

Where can you find Musk Thistle in the United States?

This weed can grow almost anywhere in the United States except in just a few states. You typically won’t see it growing in extreme northern and southern states like Maine or Florida.

Wrapping Up Musk Thistle

Musk Thistle can be a nasty invader to your yard and livestock pastures, easily taking over vegetation. However, it can also offer the beauty of local wildlife and a medicinal purpose.

You can rid your land of it manually or with thistle weed killers if needed. But you should try to keep its benefits in mind before deciding!

If you feel like you need to learn more about these pesky garden tenants, check out our weeds page to learn all about different weed varieties, treatment options, and surprising information.