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Musk Thistle (Carduus nutans)

Musk Thistle (Carduus nutans) - Also known as Nodding Thistle

(Order: Asterales, Family: Asteraceae)

Musk Thistle (Carduus nutans) plant that has started seeding.

(Kansas: Sedgwick County. Ninnescah Field Station 37° 32’ 00.22” N, 97° 41’ 04.77” W. Few plants spread out in a disturbed area. June 22, 2012.)


Photos by Timothy Eberl, 2012.


Adult Plant Height: Stems can reach 3 ft - 6 ft. in height.

Leaves:  Waxy, dark green, lobed leaves that have spiny points. Leaves are elliptic or lanceolately shaped and have a light green midrib and margins that are nearly white.  Leaves may grow to be 8-10 inches in length and have a width of 2-4 inches.

  Photo by Timothy Eberl, 2012.

Inflorescence:  Solitary and terminal heads that are typically 1-3 inches in diameter. They are surrounded by wide bracts that are tipped with rows of spines. Flowers are usually pink or a deep purple, but can be white.

Flowers:  Unlike many other members of the Asteraceae family, Musk Thistle possesses only disk florets (rather than both ray and disk florets). Flowers droop when they are fully developed giving it a second common name, “Nodding Thistle”.

Fruit: Single seeded achene that is brown in color with a cluster of soft bristles attached. Seeds use wind dispersal for distribution and can remain viable for up to a decade. Dispersal takes place 7-10 after flowering begins.

 Photo by Timothy Eberl, 2012.

Flowering Period:  April to July. Musk Thistle is a biennial plant though small populations may act as annuals. Some plants may form rosettes that overwinter during the year, preventing the growth of other plants.

Habitat: Disturbed areas, typically old agricultural fields, pastures and along roads

Uses:  Musk Thistle was once used as an ornamental plant in the 19th century.

Conservation status: Not threatened. Musk Thistle is listed as an invasive/noxious weed in 22 states in the United States.

Notes: Musk Thistle is thought to have originated in Southern Eurasia and brought over in ballast water and used as an ornamental plant. It quickly expanded and has been recognized as a weed since the mid-20th century

Distribution: Throughout Kansas. Widely distributed in North America.




Oklahoma Invasive Species:

Iowa State University:



Elpel, Thomas J. 2004. Botany In A Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification. HOPS Press, Pony, Montana. 164.

McCarty, M.K. 1975. A Descriptive Guide for Major Nebraska Thistles. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska. Pp. 15.

Images: All images taken by Timothy Eberl, 2012. 


Musk Thistle Control

Machete Musk Thistle Control

Submitted by: Timothy Eberl, 2012.

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