a native of Europe and Western Asia. It has been
in the United States since the late 1800’s. It was
accidentally introduced and has spread rapidly in
North America. It is a prolific seed producer
and, as an alien species, it lacks natural enemies.
It is important to identify and eradicate musk
weed in Nevada and many other states because it
reduces forage yield and quality, makes
recreation areas impassable, and degrades
Musk thistle is a biennial. In its first year, it
radiating from the crown (center) close to the
ground and without flower stalks) (Fig.1). The
rosette may grow two feet in diameter. Its waxy
leaves appear pale blue-green because they are
covered with whitish hairs.
During its second growing season, musk
coarse stems that are covered with dense, short
hairs. The leaves are three to six inches long and
alternate. They are spiny, deeply lobed, long and
narrow. Musk thistle has a single, deep taproot
that does not spread laterally. The root is hollow
at the top and has a corky texture throughout.
During the second year, approximately 45 to
musk thistles produce seeds. Fortunately, musk
thistle only reproduces by seed; unfortunately, it
is very prolific, producing a few thousand to
100,000 seeds per plant. On average, a plant
produces 10,000 seeds. Each seed has a bristle
or pappus (stiff hairs) that aids in seed dispersal;
however, animals, wind, birds, and water do not
generally spread the seeds; but they may. The
majority falls close to the plant, resulting in
thousands of new seedlings in the immediate
area. Musk thistle seeds may remain viable for
more than 10 years in the soil.
Musk thistle produces terminal flower heads
from June through October (Fig.2). It may also
produce secondary heads that develop lower on
the main branches. All the flower heads
(terminal and secondary) can emerge over nine
Tina Kadrmas, Undergraduate Research Assistant, University of Nevada, Reno
Biotechnology and Natural Resources; IPM Specialist, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension
weeks. In as little as seven days after the first
bloom, and for a period of up to two months,
seeds can be shed. The flowers are one to three
inches in diameter and deep rose to violet or
purple colored; very rarely a white flower is
produced. Each flower has spine-tipped bracts
(reduced leaf or leaf-like structure at the base of
the flower) surrounding it. The flower heads
often droop or nod, giving the musk thistle its
common name, nodding thistle (Fig. 3).
Musk thistle is found in temperate climate
occupy saline soils in low valleys, as well as
acidic soils at 10,000 feet. Its seeds germinate in
various ranges of environmental conditions. It
grows in 40 states, including arid Nevada and the
moist climes of the East Coast. Moisture and
sunlight favor its establishment. Pastures,
construction sites, roadsides, ditches, gullies, and
rangeland, particularly areas covered by
snowdrifts, are ideal sites for musk thistle.
Musk thistle does not become well
is great. Healthy, dense pasture and rangeland
vegetation prevents musk thistle from
establishing. However, competitive vegetation
does not guarantee a musk thistle-free area, but it
does reduce musk thistle establishment and
Impact of Musk Thistle
Coming in contact with musk thistle is very
act as a natural fence line or barrier on the range
because of its spiny leaves. Animals avoid musk
thistle. In pastures and rangeland, valuable
forage is lost due to the presence of musk thistle.
Livestock will not graze musk thistle nor near it.
Sheep may graze it in its rosette stage, but only if
there is nothing else to eat. Similarly, musk
thistle does not provide good forage for wildlife,
thus reducing wildlife habitat value. Wildlife
may move to a new location if a significant
portion of their habitat is infested with musk and
other thistles. A dense stand can make
waterways inaccessible to wildlife, livestock, and
The quality of recreation is diminished when
musk thistle invades trails and scenic areas.
Trails become inaccessible, native vegetation is
displaced (changing the natural landscape), and
opportunities for wildlife viewing diminish as
Management of Musk Thistle
Because musk thistle is a biennial that
than many invasive species. Prevention is the
key to controlling musk thistle. Complete
exclusion of the thistle is the most cost effective
method of control. If musk thistle does establish,
prevention of seed production and dispersal is
most important for a successful management
program. By combining several management
techniques, musk thistle may be eradicated or
Prevention is the most time and cost effective
of all the available techniques and must come
Buy and plant certified weed-free seed to
keep musk thistle out of new plantings. When
feeding livestock, make sure the feed, hay or
grain, is certified weed free.
Ensure equipment and vehicles are cleaned
before leaving contaminated areas.
On rangeland and in pastures, have a grazing
management plan that allows desirable
musk thistle incursion, do not over graze a
healthy pasture or rangeland. A site with forage
under stress and with open, disturbed patches
allows musk thistle to establish.
Monitor your property and adjacent lands for
musk thistle and eradicate new plants whenever
they appear. Preventing seed production and
dispersal is paramount. Kill existing rosettes
wherever they are found by tilling, cultivating or
herbicide application. Mow second year plants
after the flower stalk is in the bud stage. Earlier
mowing may cause the plant architecture to
change to a prostrate (laying flat on the ground)
plant capable of producing flowers and seeds.
Eradicating a small infestation of any weed is
more cost effective and consumes less time than
trying to control and eradicate a large stand.
Cultural control of musk thistle is limited.
Good forage management practices that establish
competitive desirable forage, maintain soil
fertility, and prevent erosion will help combat
musk thistle. Perennial grasses are most
competitive with broadleaf weeds in the western
United States (Sheley and Petroff 1999).
Research shows that musk thistle has declined
over the years when perennial grasses are
Mechanical control is effective on musk
thistle. Tilling, hoeing, and hand pulling must be
completed either in the rosette stage or early
after the flower stalk grows (bolts), but before
the plant flowers and produces seed. Hand
pulling and hoeing are only an option for small
stands. To be effective, a successful revegetation
program must follow tilling. If this is not done,
reinfestation of musk thistle is inevitable.
Mowing is an option, but it can allow some
musk thistle plants to recover and possibly sow
seeds. Mowing does reduce seed production, but
should not be the single means of control in a
management program. It is most effective at the
flower bud stage. Mowing combined with an
herbicide is more effective.
Mechanical control is very effective in
ditches, yards, construction sites and pastures.
However, it may be difficult or uneconomical to
use this method on rangelands.
Grazing just to control musk thistle is not
recommended. However, using good grazing
techniques will stimulate growth of native
grasses and keep pastures healthy. Since cattle
will not graze musk thistle and sheep will only
eat it in its rosette stage, it is difficult to maintain
healthy pasturelands once they have been
infested with musk thistle.
There are four insects in the United States
that attack musk thistle. Rhinocyllus conicus
(Fig. 4) is a seed weevil that reduces seed
production. Trichosirocalus horridus, a beetle,
eats the crown of the thistle, kills the apical (top
or terminal bud of a stem) meristem (actively
dividing tissues at the growing tips of shoots and
roots), and reduces flowering. The leaf feeding
tortoise beetle, Cassida rubiginosa, feeds on the
leaves, skeletonizing them. This complements
the damage of Rhinocyllus conicus and
leaf and shoot miner, deposits its eggs in young
leaves and shoots. The larvae feed on the inner
part of the leaves and shoots. Hollowed out,
they dry and break. However, Rhinocyllus
conicus is not host specific. It has been released
in Nevada near Verdi and is well established in
the areas of Austin, Big Creek, and Grove’s
Lake. It will eat other thistles including native
species, some of which may be endangered.
Numerous chemicals kill musk thistle.
clopyralid, dicamba, MCPA, picloram,
metsulfuron, chlorsulfuron, and 2,4-D have
proven to be effective. Which chemical to use
and at what application rate depend on the
Figure 4. Rhinocyllus conicus adult laying eggs
Photos courtesy of Oregon
Department of Agriculture.
of the musk thistle, weather, associated species,
soil-type, stand density, county or state
regulations, and what is to be grown in the area
in the future.
In the rosette stage, clopyralid, dicamba,
MCPA, picloram, and 2,4-D provide good
control. Application of these chemicals is
usually suggested for the fall of the first year
(rosette stage). After the musk thistle bolts,
metsulfuron and chlorsulfuron are effective.
These two products reduce the amount of seed
produced after application. Clopyralid, dicamba,
MCPA, picloram, and 2,4-D do not appear to
reduce seed production after application if the
plant has bolted. Apply metsulfuron and
chlorsulfuron in the spring, during bolting. If the
season is long and the musk thistles bolt the first
year, apply metsulfuron and chlorsulfuron in the
fall. This same treatment can be used on bull
and scotch thistle as well. Always follow
labeled directions; it’s the law!
1) Bussan, A.J., S.A. Dewey, M.A. Trainor and
T.D. Wilson (eds). 2001-2002 Weed
Management Handbook. Extension Services
of Montana, Utah and Wyoming. pp. 81, 82,
118, 226, 237, 279.
2) Rees, N.E., E.M. Coombs, L.V. Knutson,
G.L. Piper, P.C. Quimby, Jr., N.R. Spencer,
C.E. Turner. 1996. Biological Control of
3) Sheley, R.L. and J.K Petroff. 1999. Biology
and Management of Noxious Rangeland
Weeds. Oregon State University Press.
Corvallis, OR. pp. 145-161.
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Editing by Sue Strom
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