Canada thistle

Cirsium arvense


Family: Asteraceae

Weed Class: C

Year Listed: 1988

Native to: Europe and Asia

Toxic: not known to be

Other Legal Listings:

additional photos



Why is it a noxious weed?

Once established, it spreads quickly replacing native plants. It grows in circular patches, spreading vegetatively through roots which can spread 10 -12' in one season. It poses an economic threat to the agriculture industry by reducing crop yields.

How would I identify it?

General Description: Canada thistle is a rhizomatous, perennial, herbaceous plant. It grows 2 to 5 feet tall with slender grooved stems that branch only at the top. It has dense clonal growth of male and female plants.

Flower Description: Flowerheads many, in clusters at tips of branched stems. Flowerheads are 1/2 to 3/4 inch in diameter and bloom June to October. Bracts under flowerheads many, with some having a weakly spined tip. Flower petals purple to pink (sometimes white).

Leaf Description: Leaves are alternately arranged and are lance shaped to narrowly oval. Margins range from smooth to spiny to somewhat toothed or lobed. Surfaces have variable hairs from densely to thinly hairy to no hairs present, with hairs typically on leaf undersides.

Stem Description: Stem shoots begin as a rosette and then grow upright stems after 2 to 4 weeks. Stems can be slightly hairy or without hairs. Stems are not winged as they are in the Carduus genus.

Fruit/Seed Description: Seeds are around 0.16 inches (4 mm long) with tufts of bristles that help them disperse. Plants produce 1,500 seeds on average and may produce up to 5,300 seeds.

May be confused with:

How does it reproduce?

It reproduces by tufted seeds dispersed by the wind. They can remain viable in the soil for over 20 years. Each plant has a fibrous taproot with deep, wide spreading horizontal roots. Small pieces of root can also grow into new plants.

Where does it grow?

Canada thistle is common in pastures and croplands. It invades natural areas such as prairies and dunes that have disturbance. It also invades wet areas with fluctuating water levels such as stream banks, sedge meadows and wet prairies. Please click here to see a distribution map of Canada thistle in Washington.

How do I control it?

General Control Strategy

Canada thistle is difficult to control once it is established on a site. One treatment or a combination of treatments may need to be used to control populations depending on the site.

Mechanical Control

Repeated tillage at 7 to 28 day intervals for up to 4 years can be effective on infestations of Canada thistle. Repeated mowing to weaken stems and prevent seeding is also effective in low level infestations. Frequently tilling may also reduce populations if continued for a few years.

Cultural Control

Planting competitive crops, such as alfalfa and forage grasses can be very effective in controlling an infestation of Canada thistle.

Biological Control

Fly larvae of the stem gall fly Urophora cardui impact plant vigor in Canada thistle by inducing the plant to divert energy away from root and flower production to produce gall tissue in stems. Growth and flowering can be retarded, but this agent alone does not kill plants or prevent spread. For more information about the biological control of Canada thistle, please visit WSU Extension Integrated Weed Control Project.

Herbicide Control

Please refer to the PNW Weed Management Handbook, or contact your county noxious weed coordinator.


For more information

See our Written Findings for more information about Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense).

Additional Photos





leaves--top sides


leaf--top side


leaf--bottom side


plant going to seed


in flower


flowerheads prior to blooming


going to seed


blooming flowerhead


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