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Cirsium vulgare (spear thistle)


  • Last modified
  • 22 November 2017
  • Datasheet Type(s)
  • Invasive Species
  • Pest
  • Host Plant
  • Preferred Scientific Name
  • Cirsium vulgare
  • Preferred Common Name
  • spear thistle
  • Taxonomic Tree
  • Domain: Eukaryota
  •   Kingdom: Plantae
  •     Phylum: Spermatophyta
  •       Subphylum: Angiospermae
  •         Class: Dicotyledonae
  • Summary of Invasiveness
  • C. vulgare is an invasive weed in many parts of the world, notably Australia, Canada and the USA, and has the potential to compete with many crops and natural species and displace them from their natural habitats. Since this species can tolerate adve...

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Young seedling.
CaptionYoung seedling.
CopyrightSheldon Navie
Young seedling.
SeedlingYoung seedling.Sheldon Navie
Leaves showing the many sharp spines.
CaptionLeaves showing the many sharp spines.
CopyrightSheldon Navie
Leaves showing the many sharp spines.
LeavesLeaves showing the many sharp spines.Sheldon Navie
Close-up of spine of leaflet.
TitleLeaflet spine
CaptionClose-up of spine of leaflet.
CopyrightSheldon Navie
Close-up of spine of leaflet.
Leaflet spineClose-up of spine of leaflet.Sheldon Navie
Flower, showing the dense inflorescence.
CaptionFlower, showing the dense inflorescence.
CopyrightSheldon Navie
Flower, showing the dense inflorescence.
FlowerFlower, showing the dense inflorescence.Sheldon Navie
Close-up of flowers. Note that despite its pernicious habits, the thistle is a productive source of nectar for many insects such as this Apis sp. honey bee.
CaptionClose-up of flowers. Note that despite its pernicious habits, the thistle is a productive source of nectar for many insects such as this Apis sp. honey bee.
CopyrightSheldon Navie
Close-up of flowers. Note that despite its pernicious habits, the thistle is a productive source of nectar for many insects such as this Apis sp. honey bee.
FlowersClose-up of flowers. Note that despite its pernicious habits, the thistle is a productive source of nectar for many insects such as this Apis sp. honey bee.Sheldon Navie
Infestation of thistles.
CaptionInfestation of thistles.
CopyrightSheldon Navie
Infestation of thistles.
InfestationInfestation of thistles.Sheldon Navie
Growth form showing extensive branching and abundant flowers.
CaptionGrowth form showing extensive branching and abundant flowers.
CopyrightSheldon Navie
Growth form showing extensive branching and abundant flowers.
HabitGrowth form showing extensive branching and abundant flowers.Sheldon Navie
Mature thistle showing the abundant seed heads.
TitleMature plant
CaptionMature thistle showing the abundant seed heads.
CopyrightSheldon Navie
Mature thistle showing the abundant seed heads.
Mature plantMature thistle showing the abundant seed heads.Sheldon Navie
Close-up of seed head.
TitleSeed head
CaptionClose-up of seed head.
CopyrightSheldon Navie
Close-up of seed head.
Seed headClose-up of seed head.Sheldon Navie


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Preferred Scientific Name

  • Cirsium vulgare (Savi) Ten.

Preferred Common Name

  • spear thistle

Other Scientific Names

  • Ascalea lanceolata (L.) Hill
  • Carduus lanceolatus L.
  • Carduus vulgaris Savi
  • Cirsium lanceolatum (L.) Scop.
  • Cirsium vulgare (Savi) Airy-Shaw
  • Cnicus lanceolatus (L.) Willd.

International Common Names

  • English: bank thistle; bell thistle; bird thistle; blue thistle; bull thistle; bur thistle; burr thistle; button thistle; common burr thistle; Fuller's thistle; lance-leaved thistle; plum thistle; roadside thistle
  • Spanish: cardo lanceolado
  • French: chardon lancéolé; cirse a feuilles lanceolees
  • Russian: bodyak obiknovennii

Local Common Names

  • Argentina: cardo negro
  • Australia: black thistle; spear thistle
  • Chile: cardo negro
  • Denmark: horsetodsel
  • Finland: piikkiohdake
  • Germany: Gemeine Kratzdistel; Karmedik; Lanzettblaettrige Kratzdistel; Speerdistel
  • Italy: cardo asinino; cardo lanceolato
  • Japan: Amerikaoniazami; Amerika-oni-azami
  • Netherlands: shaapdissel; speerdistel
  • New Zealand: scotch thistle
  • South Africa: scotch thistle
  • Sweden: vaegtistel
  • Uruguay: cardo negro
  • USA/Hawaii: spear thistle

EPPO code

  • CIRVU (Cirsium vulgare)

Summary of Invasiveness

Top of page C. vulgare is an invasive weed in many parts of the world, notably Australia, Canada and the USA, and has the potential to compete with many crops and natural species and displace them from their natural habitats. Since this species can tolerate adverse environmental conditions and adapt to different habitats, it continues to spread and occupies new areas despite the control measures applied. High seed production, variation in seed dormancy, and vigorous growth habit make this species a serious invader. It competes with other species in pastures, rangelands and agricultural fields and causes both wool fault and physical injury to animals. It is difficult to eradicate entirely from an area due to its high seed production, variable life form and sequential germination pattern.

Taxonomic Tree

Top of page
  • Domain: Eukaryota
  •     Kingdom: Plantae
  •         Phylum: Spermatophyta
  •             Subphylum: Angiospermae
  •                 Class: Dicotyledonae
  •                     Order: Asterales
  •                         Family: Asteraceae
  •                             Genus: Cirsium
  •                                 Species: Cirsium vulgare

Notes on Taxonomy and Nomenclature

Top of page The name Cirsium vulgare is derived from the Greek kirsion (a kind of thistle with medicinal properties) or kirsos (a swollen vein), and from the Latin vulgaris meaning 'common' (Zimdahl, 1989; Parsons and Cuthbertson, 1992; Forcella and Randall, 1994). Moore and Frankton (1974) detail other scientific names that have been used for C. vulgare. The accepted common name is bull thistle, but it also known by a variety of other common names throughout its range (Parsons and Cuthbertson, 1992; Forcella and Randall, 1994; Beck, 1999).


Top of page C. vulgare is a biennial, or occasionally a monocarpic perennial (Grime et al., 1988). The seedling is hairy and produces numerous spines. It has a short hypocotyl and no epicotyl (Hyde-Wyatt and Morris, 1980). In the first year, a basal rosette is formed that may be up to 65 cm in diameter, the leaves of which are elliptical in shape, spiny and coarsely toothed. The plant has a branched taproot system, which may include several primary taproots (Holm et al., 1997). In the second year, the plant bolts and can grow to a height of between one and two metres (Forcella and Randall, 1994). The stem is winged and spiny, with alternate leaves. The cauline leaves are lanceolate, up to 30 cm long and are much more dissected and lobed than the rosette leaves. The upper surface of all the leaves is spiny, and the leaf lobes terminate in sharp stiff spines (Holm et al., 1997). The purple bisexual flowers (florets) are tubular, arranged into capitula (flowerheads) that may occur solitarily or in terminal clusters of two or three (Grime et al., 1988). The white-flowered plant is rare worldwide (Forcella and Randall, 1994), but it has been seen in Canada, especially in British Columbia (Moore and Frankton, 1974) and Ontario. The capitula, the largest of which contain over 200 florets each (Grime et al., 1988) are egg shaped and surrounded by numerous phyllaries. The receptacle is flat and has a diameter of 3-5 cm (Holm et al., 1997). The fruit is an achene (strictly a 'cypsela' - an indehiscent dry fruit developed from a one-loculed, inferior ovary, with persistent calyx attached), which may range in colour from white to yellow, grey, brown or black (Doucet and Cavers, 1997). The achene develops from a fertilized anatropous ovule in which the funiculus is attached basally near the adjoining micropyle (Radford, 1986). The mature achene consists of a pericarp, a testa, a single layer of endosperm and an embryo with an embryo axis and two cotyledons. The achenes are typically 4 mm long and 1.5 mm wide, with a weight of 3.5 mg (Forcella and Randall, 1994). An easily removed pappus is attached to the achene (Forcella and Randall, 1994) and is approximately five times as long as the achenes (Holm et al., 1997).

Plant Type

Top of page Annual
Seed propagated


Top of page C. vulgare has an Eurasian origin (Moore and Frankton, 1974) where it is particularly common on fallows, pastures and neglected or undeveloped areas. It is found in more than 50 countries (Holm et al., 1997) and is naturalized and widespread on every continent except Antarctica (Forcella and Randall, 1994). It is particularly common in North America in the wheat-growing areas and around the Great Lakes region. C. vulgare is an important and widespread weed of pastures and neglected areas in Australia (Parsons and Cuthbertson, 1992), New Zealand and South Africa.

Distribution Table

Top of page

The distribution in this summary table is based on all the information available. When several references are cited, they may give conflicting information on the status. Further details may be available for individual references in the Distribution Table Details section which can be selected by going to Generate Report.

Continent/Country/RegionDistributionLast ReportedOriginFirst ReportedInvasiveReferenceNotes


AfghanistanPresentNativeHolm et al., 1979; USDA-ARS, 2016
ArmeniaPresentNativeUSDA-ARS, 2016
AzerbaijanPresentNativeUSDA-ARS, 2016
ChinaPresentNativeMoore and Frankton, 1974
-XinjiangPresentNativeUSDA-ARS, 2016
Georgia (Republic of)PresentNativeUSDA-ARS, 2016
IranPresentNativeMoore and Frankton, 1974; Holm et al., 1979; USDA-ARS, 2016
IraqPresentNativeHolm et al., 1979; USDA-ARS, 2016
IsraelPresentIntroducedUSDA-ARS, 2016
JapanPresentIntroducedJordan, 1983; Nishida, 2002
KazakhstanPresentNativeUSDA-ARS, 2016
KyrgyzstanPresentNativeUSDA-ARS, 2016
LebanonPresentNativeUSDA-ARS, 2016
PakistanPresentNativeUSDA-ARS, 2016
SyriaPresentNativeUSDA-ARS, 2016
TajikistanPresentNativeUSDA-ARS, 2016
TurkeyPresentNativeHolm et al., 1979; USDA-ARS, 2016
TurkmenistanPresentNativeUSDA-ARS, 2016
YemenPresentIntroducedUSDA-ARS, 2016


AlgeriaPresentNativeUSDA-ARS, 2016
EritreaPresentIntroducedUSDA-ARS, 2016
EthiopiaPresentIntroducedUSDA-ARS, 2016
KenyaPresentIntroducedAgnew, 1974; Holm et al., 1979; USDA-ARS, 2016
MoroccoPresentNativeUSDA-ARS, 2016
RéunionPresentIntroducedUSDA-ARS, 2016
South AfricaPresentIntroduced Invasive Holm et al., 1979; Zimmermann, 1991
-Canary IslandsPresentIntroducedUSDA-ARS, 2016
TunisiaPresentNativeHolm et al., 1979; USDA-ARS, 2016

North America

CanadaPresentIntroducedbefore 1821 Invasive Holm et al., 1979; Darbyshire, 2003; USDA-ARS, 2016
-AlbertaPresentIntroducedDarbyshire, 2003
-British ColumbiaWidespreadIntroducedDarbyshire, 2003
-ManitobaPresentIntroduced Invasive Darbyshire, 2003
-New BrunswickPresentIntroduced Invasive Darbyshire, 2003
-Newfoundland and LabradorPresentIntroduced Invasive Darbyshire, 2003
-Nova ScotiaPresentIntroduced Invasive Darbyshire, 2003
-OntarioWidespreadIntroduced Invasive Darbyshire, 2003
-Prince Edward IslandPresentIntroducedDarbyshire, 2003
-QuebecWidespreadIntroducedDarbyshire, 2003
-SaskatchewanPresentIntroducedDarbyshire, 2003
Saint Pierre and MiquelonPresentIntroducedDarbyshire, 2003
USAPresentIntroduced1824 Invasive Holm et al., 1979; USDA-ARS, 2016
-AlaskaPresentIntroducedHulten, 1968; Darbyshire, 2003
-ArizonaPresentIntroducedMitich, 1998
-ArkansasPresentIntroducedMissouri Botanical Garden, 2003
-CaliforniaPresentIntroducedMitich, 1998; Randall, 2000
-ColoradoPresentIntroducedWeber and Wittmann, 1996; Mitich, 1998
-FloridaPresentIntroducedWunderlin, 1998
-HawaiiPresentIntroducedHolm et al., 1979; USDA-ARS, 2016
-IdahoPresentIntroducedMitich, 1998
-IllinoisPresentIntroducedMohlenbrock, 1986
-IowaPresentIntroducedForcella and Randall, 1994
-KansasPresentIntroducedBare, 1979
-MarylandPresentIntroducedBarrows, 1984; Malan and Donahue, 1986; Tipping, 1992
-MichiganPresentIntroduced Invasive Crow et al., 1991; Forcella and Randall, 1994
-MinnesotaPresentIntroduced Invasive Forcella and Randall, 1994
-MissouriPresentIntroducedMissouri Botanical Garden, 2003
-MontanaPresentIntroducedMitich, 1998
-NebraskaPresentIntroducedWeaver, 1968; McCarty et al., 1984
-NevadaPresentIntroducedMitich, 1998
-New JerseyPresentIntroducedGrossmueller and Lederhouse, 1987
-New MexicoPresentIntroducedMartin and Hutchins, 1981
-North CarolinaPresentIntroducedRadford et al., 1968; McDonald et al., 1994
-OregonPresentIntroducedMitich, 1998
-South CarolinaPresentIntroducedRadford et al., 1968
-TennesseePresentIntroducedWofford, 1989
-TexasPresentIntroduced1987O'Kennon and Nesom, 1988; Mitich, 1998
-UtahPresentIntroducedMitich, 1998
-VirginiaPresentIntroducedBarrows, 1984; Wofford, 1989
-WashingtonPresentIntroducedMitich, 1998
-West VirginiaPresentIntroducedStrausbaugh and Core, 1977
-WisconsinPresentIntroducedBennett, 2001
-WyomingPresentIntroducedMitich, 1998

Central America and Caribbean

Costa RicaPresentIntroducedForcella and Randall, 1994
GuatemalaPresentIntroducedHolm et al., 1979

South America

ArgentinaPresentIntroducedHolm et al., 1979; Nobile and Lujan, 1989; USDA-ARS, 2016
BoliviaPresentIntroducedMissouri Botanical Garden, 2003
ChilePresentIntroducedHolm et al., 1979; Finot et al., 1996; USDA-ARS, 2016
EcuadorPresentIntroducedForcella and Randall, 1994; USDA-ARS, 2016
ParaguayPresentIntroducedUSDA-ARS, 2016
PeruPresentIntroducedForcella and Randall, 1994; USDA-ARS, 2016
UruguayPresentIntroducedHolm et al., 1979; USDA-ARS, 2016


AlbaniaPresentNativeUSDA-ARS, 2016
AustriaPresentNativeHolm et al., 1979; USDA-ARS, 2016
BelarusPresentNativeUSDA-ARS, 2016
BelgiumPresentNativeHolm et al., 1979
Bosnia-HercegovinaPresentNativeUSDA-ARS, 2016
BulgariaPresentNativeUSDA-ARS, 2016
CroatiaPresentNativeUSDA-ARS, 2016
CyprusPresentNativeUSDA-ARS, 2016
Czech RepublicWidespreadNativeKinkorova, 1991; USDA-ARS, 2016
DenmarkPresentNativePetersen, 1982; USDA-ARS, 2016
EstoniaPresentNativeUSDA-ARS, 2016
FinlandPresentNativeHolm et al., 1979; USDA-ARS, 2016
FrancePresentNativeUSDA-ARS, 2016
GermanyPresentNativeHolm et al., 1979; USDA-ARS, 2016
GreecePresentNativeHolm et al., 1979; USDA-ARS, 2016
HungaryPresentNative Invasive Holm et al., 1979; USDA-ARS, 2016
IrelandPresentNativeUSDA-ARS, 2016
ItalyPresentNative Invasive Holm et al., 1979; USDA-ARS, 2016
LatviaPresentNativeUSDA-ARS, 2016
LithuaniaPresentNativeUSDA-ARS, 2016
MacedoniaPresentNativeUSDA-ARS, 2016
MoldovaPresentNativeUSDA-ARS, 2016
MontenegroPresentNativeUSDA-ARS, 2016
NetherlandsPresentNativeKlinkhamer & de Jong, 1993; USDA-ARS, 2016
NorwayPresentNativeHolm et al., 1979; USDA-ARS, 2016
PolandPresentNative Invasive Holm et al., 1979; USDA-ARS, 2016
PortugalPresentNativeUSDA-ARS, 2016
-AzoresPresentIntroducedUSDA-ARS, 2016
-MadeiraPresentIntroducedUSDA-ARS, 2016
RomaniaPresentNativeUSDA-ARS, 2016
Russian FederationPresentNativeHolm et al., 1979
-Central RussiaPresentNativeUSDA-ARS, 2016
-Eastern SiberiaPresentNativeUSDA-ARS, 2016
-Southern RussiaPresentNativeUSDA-ARS, 2016
-Western SiberiaPresentNativeUSDA-ARS, 2016
SerbiaPresentNativeUSDA-ARS, 2016
SlovakiaWidespreadNativeKinkorova, 1991; USDA-ARS, 2016
SloveniaPresentNativeUSDA-ARS, 2016
SpainPresentNativeHolm et al., 1979; USDA-ARS, 2016
SwedenPresentNativeHolm et al., 1979; USDA-ARS, 2016
SwitzerlandPresentNativeHolm et al., 1979; Salveter, 1998; USDA-ARS, 2016
UKPresentNativeHolm et al., 1979; USDA-ARS, 2016
UkrainePresentNativeVolna, 1988; USDA-ARS, 2016


AustraliaPresentIntroduced Invasive Holm et al., 1979; USDA-ARS, 2016
-Australian Northern TerritoryPresentIntroducedHolm et al., 1997
-New South WalesPresentIntroducedHolm et al., 1997
-QueenslandPresentIntroducedHolm et al., 1997
-South AustraliaPresentIntroduced1841Holm et al., 1997
-TasmaniaPresentIntroduced1830sHolm et al., 1997
-VictoriaPresentIntroducedHolm et al., 1997
-Western AustraliaPresentIntroducedHolm et al., 1997
New CaledoniaPresentIntroducedUSDA-ARS, 2016
New ZealandPresentIntroduced Invasive Holm et al., 1979; Kelly and Popay, 1985; USDA-ARS, 2016

History of Introduction and Spread

Top of page C. vulgare was probably introduced to North America in colonial times (Moore and Frankton, 1974). It was reportedly collected in 1821 at Montreal, where it was common (Rousseau, 1968). In the USA, it was introduced to scattered locations in the late 1800s through the major shipping centre at Portland, Oregon. It moved east to Montana and after three decades migrated south to Idaho, then finally moved east and west (Forcella and Harvey, 1988). C. vulgare was introduced to southwestern USA after 1824 (Mitich, 1998). It is still spreading in the USA and it was first reported as recently as 1987 in Texas (Forcella and Randall, 1994). C. vulgare is known to have occurred in Tasmania as early as the 1830s, from where it was introduced to South Australia prior to 1841. Due to its invasive potential, C. vulgare was considered an important weed in southern Australian states in the 1850s (Parsons and Cuthbertson, 1992). C. vulgare also occurs in New Zealand and temperate South America, particularly Argentina and Chile, where it has spread rapidly since 1960 (Mitich, 1998).

Risk of Introduction

Top of page It is possible that C. vulgare spreads to new areas as a result of accidental transportation of contaminated agricultural produce such as crop seeds or fodder, or deliberate introduction of cypselas as ornamental plants (Mitich, 1998).


Top of page C. vulgare occurs in a wide variety of habitats including pastures, rangelands, arable fields, ditches, riverbanks, wastelands, roadsides, field and woodland margins (Forcella and Randall, 1994; Holm et al., 1997). It is most common in pastures and on road verges, productive spoil heaps, building rubble and cinder tips. Mainly at seedling stage, it is associated with rock outcrops, arable fields, banks of rivers and streams, hedgerows and paths (Grime et al., 1988). C. vulgare is found in temperate zones in both the northern and southern hemispheres (Forcella and Randall, 1994; Holm et al., 1997) as well as in warm-temperate subtropical zones with warm dry summers and mild humid winters (Klinkhamer and Jong, 1993). It requires disturbed sites for the maintenance of populations (Klinkhamer and Jong, 1988).

Habitat List

Top of page
Coastal areas Present, no further details Harmful (pest or invasive)
Cultivated / agricultural land Present, no further details Harmful (pest or invasive)
Disturbed areas Present, no further details Harmful (pest or invasive)
Managed forests, plantations and orchards Present, no further details Harmful (pest or invasive)
Managed grasslands (grazing systems) Present, no further details Harmful (pest or invasive)
Rail / roadsides Present, no further details Harmful (pest or invasive)
Urban / peri-urban areas Present, no further details Harmful (pest or invasive)
Natural grasslands Present, no further details Harmful (pest or invasive)
Riverbanks Present, no further details Harmful (pest or invasive)

Hosts/Species Affected

Top of page C. vulgare has been found in agricultural fields where it competes with sown species (Amor and Ridge, 1987; Auld and Medd, 1987; Isaev et al., 1988; Nobile and Lujan, 1989). It is a serious weed of cereals in Italy, orchards in Spain, alfalfa (Medicago sativa) in Argentina, and wheat (Triticum aestivum) in Uruguay. It is a principle weed of wheat (Triticum aestivum), maize (Zea mays), barley (Hordeum vulgare), oats (Avena sativa), sorghum (Sorghum spp.) and rice (Oryza sativa) in Australia. It is a common weed of wheat, barley, oats and other cereals in Austria, orchards in Switzerland and South Africa, pastures in Switzerland, South Africa and Uruguay, vineyards in Spain and South Africa, citrus orchards in South Africa (Holm et al., 1997) and Japan (Jordan, 1983) and several winter season crops in Uruguay. C. vulgare, with undetermined rank, is a weed of cereals in Finland, Greece, South Africa, Tasmania and Turkey, citrus orchards in the United States, cotton (Gossypium herbaceum) in Greece, linseed (Linum usitatissimum) in Argentina, maize in Guatemala, orchards in Turkey, pastures in Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Chile, England, Norway, Sweden, Hawaii and New Caledonia, potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) in Argentina, rape (Brassica napus) in England, vegetables in Tasmania, wheat in Argentina and Guatemala, and vineyards in the former Soviet Union (Holm et al., 1997). Holm et al. (1997) notes C. vulgare as a troublesome weed in 20 crops.

Growth Stages

Top of page Pre-emergence, Seedling stage, Vegetative growing stage

Biology and Ecology

Top of page Genetics

The chromosome number for C. vulgare is 2n=68 (Moore and Frankton, 1962; Grime et al., 1988). This number is not shared by other Cirsium species, as they have half or lower numbers of chromosomes than 68 (Moore and Frankton, 1974). Natural hybrids have been described between C. vulgare and other Cirsium species, including: C. x bipontinum, C. x breunium, C. x csepeliense, C. dissectum x C. vulgare, C. x gerhardtii (= C. x grandiflorum), C. x narbonese, C. x reyi, C. x sabaudum and C. x subspinuligerum (Klinkhamer and Jong, 1993).

Physiology and Phenology

C. vulgare achenes germinate throughout the year, with a small peak in autumn and large peak in spring (Klinkhamer and Jong, 1993). Some achenes germinate as soon as they reach the soil in late summer or early autumn if adequate germination conditions are met. In the first year, a basal rosette is formed that becomes vernalized after experiencing a winter season. If the rosette has attained a large enough size in spring it then bolts and flowers (Wesselingh et al., 1994). Vernalization is usually required for flower initiation (Groves and Kaye, 1989; Downs, 1998). Wesselingh et al. (1994) found that genotypes that flowered without cold in their first year were annuals, originating mainly from the south of Europe, while genotypes that flowered after experiencing winter cold in their second year were biennials, originating from the northern European populations. Under nutrient-rich conditions, C. vulgare behaved as a biennial (Jong et al., 1987) whereas some individuals require 4-5 years to flower and set achenes (Forcella and Randall, 1994). Achenes of C. vulgare have a wide range of germination responses depending on the geographic location of the population from which the achenes have been collected. In Australia, fresh seeds had 10-20% germination whereas those stored for three and six months had 50% and 80% germination, respectively (Forcella and Wood, 1986a). Fresh seeds collected from German and British populations had 26-42% germination (Tothill and Berry, 1981), 60-90% from the Netherlands (Klinkhamer and Jong, 1993) and 90-100% from Canada (Doucet and Cavers, 1997). Germination of C. vulgare seed can be affected by moisture, light availability, gap size and temperature (Cavers et al., 1998). Germination can be delayed by prolonged attachment to the pappus (Manku, 1998), leaf litter cover (Downs and Cavers, 2002), wetting and drying in the soil (Downs and Cavers, 2000) and overwintering at chilling temperatures in darkness (Doucet and Cavers, 1997). Under laboratory conditions, achene coat microorganisms from an undisturbed site promoted germination of C. vulgare. Mortality of seedlings was higher in undisturbed sites than in disturbed sites (van Leeuwen, 1981). The seeds germinate over a wide range of temperatures from as low as 5°C (Doucet and Cavers, 1997) to as high as 30°C (Lincoln, 1981). Fresh seeds have a higher optimum temperature for germination than stored seeds (23.5°C vs. 20.0°C) (Michaux, 1989b). C. vulgare is less sensitive to low water potential than other thistle species (Groves and Kaye, 1989). Seed require light to germinate (Klinkhamer and Jong, 1993; van Staden et al., 1995) and seeds that are induced into secondary dormancy by storing them under moist conditions in the darkness will not germinate in the absence of light (Klinkhamer and Jong, 1993; Doucet and Cavers, 1997). Seeds that do not germinate upon dispersal enter the seed bank and germinate at a later time (Forcella and Randall, 1994). Some authors support the formation of a persistent seed bank (Clark and Wilson, 1994; Doucet and Cavers, 1996, 1997) although others do not (van Breeman and van Leeuwen, 1983; Klinkhamer et al., 1988). In different years, the seed bank of C. vulgare was estimated at 1480-26371 seed per m² (Forcella and Wood, 1986a). About 20% of the seed bank can be lost through rodent consumption (Mitich, 1998). Various secondary metabolites including flavonoids (McGowan and Wallace, 1972; Wagner, 1977), phenolic acids (McGowan and Wallace, 1972) and alkaloids (Hultin and Torssell, 1965) have been extracted from this species.

Reproductive Biology

C. vulgare flowers from late July to October and sets seed from August to October in the northern hemisphere (Grime et al., 1988). In the southern hemisphere, C. vulgare flowers and sets seed from late January (Groves and Kaye, 1989) to late May (Forcella and Wood, 1986b). Ovule fertilization occurs by self- or cross-pollination that can be accomplished by wind and insects. The flowers are pollinated by a variety of insects which feed on the nectar present at the base of the corolla. Bees (Apis spp. and Bombus spp.) are the most important pollinators, but butterflies and hoverflies have also been observed to serve as pollinators (Forcella and Randall, 1994). In the UK, a dawn-to-dusk study showed that C. vulgare flowers were visited by shorter-tongued bumblebees and honey bees (Fussell and Corbet, 1991). Self-pollination results in the production of fewer, heavier achenes than does cross-pollination (van Leeuwen, 1981). C. vulgare reproduces only by seed (Parsons and Cuthbertson, 1992). Depending on size and duration of flowering, a single C. vulgare plant can produce from one to over 400 capitula (Forcella and Randall, 1994), each capitulum containing 100-700 achenes (Manku, 1998). Overall, a plant can produce from 1600 (Jong et al., 1987) to 8400 achenes (Forcella and Wood, 1986a), a healthy plant may produce 5000 achenes, while an exceptional individual can produce up to 50000 achenes (Holm et al., 1997). Achenes from the centre of the capitulum are heavier, longer and wider than those from the periphery (Manku, 1998). The central achenes are flat, whereas the peripheral ones are curved (Manku, 1998). Achenes are dispersed by water, wind, animals and machinery. The most important means of dispersal is hay contaminated with see (Parsons and Cuthbertson, 1992). After dispersal and before germination, achenes reside briefly on or just below the soil surface, remaining viable for one year or longer, and some achenes may persist for five years (Mitich, 1998). C. vulgare achenes buried at 0-2, 5 or 20 cm, when collected and germinated three years later, had 1.4, 30.9 and 50.5% viability, respectively (Anon., 1986).

Environmental Requirements

C. vulgare is generally a species of open areas with large amounts of light but can also occur in shaded areas on south-facing slopes (Grime et al., 1988; Klinkhamer and Jong, 1993). It grows in mesic habitats but can survive in dry sites on north-facing slopes (Klinkhamer and Jong, 1993). It grows in soils with different textures (light, medium and heavy) and with wide pH ranges, from very acid (pH3) to alkaline (pH8), but it is most common on soils of pH>5 (Grime et al., 1988). It is less common in sand and on soils with more than 30% humus content and is almost absent from pure clay (Klinkhamer and Jong, 1993). C. vulgare performs optimally at high nutrient concentrations (Austin et al., 1985) and prefers heavy soils of reasonable fertility and grows well under irrigation (Parsons and Cuthbertson, 1992). It proliferates and thrives in heavily grazed pastures subject to nitrogen fertilization (Doing et al., 1969; Michael, 1970). However, soil potassium and phosphorus levels do not seem to influence its distribution (Klinkhamer and Jong, 1993). C. vulgare is not a wetland species but sometimes can be found on exposed mud at the margin of open water (Grime et al., 1988). It generally grows at altitudes up to 400 m, but suitable habitats are more common at lower altitudes (Grime et al., 1988). However, infestations have been found as high as 2800 m in Utah, USA (Dewey, 1991) and 3100 m in Ecuador (Missouri Botanical Garden, 2003).


C. vulgare is often associated with perennial communities (e.g., grasslands) as well as species of disturbed habitats. In New Zealand, the fauna associated with C. vulgare were collected from rosettes, flowers and seed heads. This fauna is characterized as non-specific, non-damaging and impoverished with respect to Diptera and Coleoptera when compared with European and Asiatic faunas collected from C. vulgare (Michaux, 1989a). Symbiotic associations between C. vulgare and vesicular-arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi have been found (Berch et al., 1988; Harris and Clapperton, 1997; Wilson and Hartnett, 1998). American goldfinches (Carduelis tristis) feed on the achenes and use the pappi to build nests (Mariani et al., 1993) and the plant also provides good cover for nesting birds (Wilson, 1981).

Latitude/Altitude Ranges

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Latitude North (°N)Latitude South (°S)Altitude Lower (m)Altitude Upper (m)

Air Temperature

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Parameter Lower limit Upper limit
Absolute minimum temperature (ºC) -24
Mean annual temperature (ºC) 2 15
Mean maximum temperature of hottest month (ºC) 14 29
Mean minimum temperature of coldest month (ºC) -12 2


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ParameterLower limitUpper limitDescription
Dry season duration12number of consecutive months with <40 mm rainfall
Mean annual rainfall5002000mm; lower/upper limits

Rainfall Regime

Top of page Uniform

Soil Tolerances

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Soil drainage

  • free
  • impeded

Soil reaction

  • acid
  • alkaline
  • neutral

Soil texture

  • heavy
  • light
  • medium

Special soil tolerances

  • shallow

Natural enemies

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Natural enemyTypeLife stagesSpecificityReferencesBiological control inBiological control on
Ceutorhyncus trimaculatus Herbivore Growing point
Puccinia calcitrapae Pathogen
Puccinia cnici Pathogen
Rhinocyllus conicus Herbivore Inflorescence/Seeds South Africa
Terellia serratulae Herbivore Inflorescence/Seeds
Trichosirocalus horridus Herbivore Inflorescence/Seeds
Urophora stylata Herbivore Inflorescence British Columbia; South Africa

Notes on Natural Enemies

Top of page Briese (1989) listed 22 species as natural enemies of C. vulgare collected in the tablelands of New South Wales, Australia. They include 18 insects (six Lepidoptera, nine Hemiptera, one Coleoptera, one Diptera, one Thysanoptera), one mite (Acarina), two molluscs and one fungus. There was little or no damage from Hemiptera or Thysanoptera. Bruzzese (1996) also listed nine insects, two mites and one fungus as natural enemies of C. vulgare that were collected from plants in Victoria, Australia. Klinkhamer and Jong (1993) listed over 124 insect species found on C. vulgare in the UK belonging to the families Coleoptera, Diptera, Hemiptera, Lepidoptera, Hymenoptera, Neuroptera, Psocoptera and Thysanoptera. They also reported two pathogenic fungi, Puccinia cnici and Erysiphe cichoracearum also mentioned by Briese (1989) and Bruzzese (1996). In Virginia and Maryland, USA, adult Chinese mantids (Tenodera aridifolia sinensis) were seen feeding on C. vulgare (Barrows, 1984). Goeden and Ricker (1986) reported that 30 phytophagous insect species compose the insect fauna of C. vulgare in southern California, USA. In 1995, Leucopis glyphinivora (Diptera: Chamaemyiidae) was recorded for the first time from the UK (Smith and McLean, 1998). In Scotland, Terellia serratulae was collected from flower heads of C. vulgare (Rotheray, 1986). Thrips nigropilosus (Terebrantia: Thysanoptera) was also recorded on C. vulgare (Walker and Michaux, 1989). A phytophagous ladybird, Epilachna pustulosa (Coleoptera: Coccinellidae), has been found feeding on C. vulgare, which can be a suitable host for this beetle (Fujiyama and Katakura, 2002). Foliage of C. vulgare is eaten by rabbits while achenes on the mother plants are consumed by mice, voles and birds (Forcella and Randall, 1994).

Means of Movement and Dispersal

Top of page Natural Dispersal (Non-Biotic)

The only significant method of dispersal is by achenes, each of which is equipped with a pappus. Since the pappus often becomes detached before the achene leaves the head, it is not well dispersed by wind. Nevertheless, air currents may carry occasional achenes with pappus firmly attached several kilometres (Parsons and Cuthbertson, 1992; Mitich, 1998). However, half of the achenes produced are dispersed to within 1 m of the parent plant, and only 11% are dispersed outside of the local population no matter what method of dispersal operates (Klinkhamer et al., 1988).

Vector Transmission (Biotic)

Achenes can be moved long distances by attachment to vehicles and farm machinery (Parsons and Cuthbertson, 1992). Achenes can also be carried on the fur and feathers of animals and in the manure of animals carried on hooves (Hyde-Wyatt and Morris, 1980; Holm et al., 1997). The presence of elaiosomes (fleshy appendages) on C. vulgare achenes facilitates their dispersal by ants (Pemberton and Irving, 1990).

Agricultural Practices

Seeding plants contaminate hay, which can be carried to new areas and serves as an important means of dispersal (Parsons and Cuthbertson, 1992).

Accidental Introduction

C. vulgare achenes can contaminate crop seeds, and flowering plants may contaminate hay, which serve as accidental pathways for the introduction of this weed to new locations (Hyde-Wyatt and Morris, 1980; Parsons and Cuthbertson, 1992; Forcella and Randall, 1994).

Intentional Introduction

C. vulgare was probably introduced deliberately as an ornamental plant or for other purposes (Mitich, 1998).

Pathway Vectors

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VectorNotesLong DistanceLocalReferences
Containers and packaging - woodShipping. Contaminated feed Yes
Land vehiclesTransport vehicles and farm machines Yes
Plants or parts of plantsBaled or loose hay Yes
Soil, sand and gravelWater Yes

Plant Trade

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Plant parts liable to carry the pest in trade/transportPest stagesBorne internallyBorne externallyVisibility of pest or symptoms
Flowers/Inflorescences/Cones/Calyx seeds
Fruits (inc. pods) seeds
Growing medium accompanying plants seeds
True seeds (inc. grain) seeds
Plant parts not known to carry the pest in trade/transport
Seedlings/Micropropagated plants
Stems (above ground)/Shoots/Trunks/Branches

Impact Summary

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Animal/plant collections None
Animal/plant products None
Biodiversity (generally) Negative
Crop production Negative
Environment (generally) Negative
Fisheries / aquaculture None
Forestry production Negative
Human health Negative
Livestock production Negative
Native fauna None
Native flora Negative
Rare/protected species None
Tourism Negative
Trade/international relations None
Transport/travel None


Top of page C. vulgare is a pest in wheat fields, pastures, protected areas and parks (Forcella and Randall, 1994). It is a weed of rangelands in 20 countries and is more frequent in grazed than in non-grazed pastures (Holm et al., 1997). It can be a dominant species in areas that have recently been clear-cut, thereby reducing survival of replanted tree seedlings (McDonald and Tappeiner, 1986). It reduces seedling growth of trees in ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) plantations in California, USA (Randall and Rejmánek, 1993). It also decreases fruit yield in orange groves in California, USA (Jordan, 1981). C. vulgare, with its prickly stem and leaves at maturity, causes problems in agricultural areas and down-grades hay quality (Parsons, 1973; Hyde-Wyatt and Morris, 1980). It interferes with livestock grazing in pastures, inhibiting livestock movement, reduces wool quality, causes injury to animals (Auld et al., 1979; Forcella and Wood, 1986a) and has little nutritional value for livestock (Holm et al., 1997). An estimated US$15 million a year was lost in the wool industry to thistle in Australia (Davidson, 1990). The market price of wool, hay and grain can be reduced if contaminated with thistle achenes (Wheatley, 1981). In New Zealand, a negative correlation was found between the live-weight gain in sheep and the density of C. vulgare (Hartley, 1983). C. vulgare also has indirect negative effects on other vegetation by serving as an alternative host for Cucumber mosaic virus in New Zealand (Fletcher, 1989), Tobacco etch virus which attacks bell peppers in southern Illinois, USA (Weinbaum and Milbrath, 1976) and Tomato spotted wilt virus in British Columbia, Canada (Bitterlich and MacDonald, 1993). Its spiny leaves and bracts are responsible for transmitting virus diseases including myxomatosis and scabby mouth between animals (Parsons and Cuthbertson, 1992).

Environmental Impact

Top of page C. vulgare quickly invades sunny areas that have been disturbed but is suppressed when invading a healthy system. Large C. vulgare plants can reduce available light for smaller plants and draw away below-ground resources (Parsons and Cuthbertson, 1992).

Impact: Biodiversity

Top of page C. vulgare is regarded as a serious pest in protected areas and parks in the USA, such as Glacier, Teton, Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks (Forcella and Randall, 1994). C. vulgare is increasing in frequency and abundance in many natural areas and it is a 'type species' in Great Lakes National Park, USA (Bennett, 2001). It also occurs in Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada (Kuijt, 1982) and Kosciusko National Park in Australia (Thompson and Gray, 1981). This species competes with and decreases desirable forage, and can form dense monoculture stands. Where C. vulgare is present in dense stands it eliminates cereals and desirable grasses. C. vulgare can inhibit the growth of other plants in the natural environment and may displace native plants partially or completely and threaten biodiversity (Holm et al., 1997). It is an efficient alien colonizer in the mountain grasslands of central Argentina that causes a decrease in biodiversity and a loss of palatable species (Petryna et al., 2002). In southern Tasmania, Australia, it is prolific immediately after fire and has the potential to take over gaps rapidly, infesting the area and excluding some previously existing species from the site (Ashton, 1981).

Social Impact

Top of page C. vulgare with its prickly stem, leaves and flower heads can be harmful to man in cases of contact with mature plants or rosettes and contact dermatitis is a human health risk associated with this species (Dawe et al., 1996). Dense infestations may prevent access to areas they border (Forcella and Wood, 1986a) and large plants along roadsides can reduce visibility which may result in hazardous circumstances. A single C. vulgare is imposing enough, but an entire colony can ruin a pasture or destroy a park or campsite.

Risk and Impact Factors

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Top of page Native North Americans used the newly bolted C. vulgare stems raw or cooked as food. The young leaves may be used for salads. The fleshy roots of C. vulgare have been sold commercially as bait for rabbit poisoning in Australia (Peterson, 1977; Mabberley, 1989). C. vulgare is a food source for bees (Barrow and Pickard, 1984). In Australia, it has value to the honey industry because it produces a good supply of nectar as well as pollen which is important for maintaining hives in some eucalypt areas. In ancient times, in Europe, it was used medicinally for treating haemorrhoids (Parsons and Cuthbertson, 1992).

Uses List

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  • Host of pest

Similarities to Other Species/Conditions

Top of page C. vulgare is distinguished from other Cirsium species and the genus Onopordum by its winged stem and spiny upper leaf surface (Holm et al., 1997). In Canada, the two native thistles, wavy-leaved thistle (Cirsium undulatum) and Flodman's thistle (Cirsium flodmanii), are mistaken for C. vulgare, although they are clearly different from C. vulgare in having densely woolly and wingless stems (Frankton and Mulligan, 1987). C. vulgare is distinguished from Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense) by the large flowers and heavy taproot (Mitich, 1998).

Prevention and Control

Top of page Cultural Control

The ability of thistles to invade pastures can be changed by grazing management (Sindel, 1991), primarily by changing the competitiveness of the desirable pasture species (Sindel, 1996). Sheep, goats and horses, but not cattle, have a significant effect on thistles in the early stages of infestation when they eat young plants (Wheatley, 1981; Olson and Lacey, 1994). In one study, J. Leigh (in Davidson, 1990) showed that goats, which have a reputation for eating everything, tend to avoid thistle foliage but ate all capitula of C. vulgare available to them and thus completely prevented seed dispersal from mature plants. Sheep grazing can reduce competition from neighbouring plants and increase seedling survival, growth, flowering and achene production in C. vulgare (Forcella and Wood, 1986a; Silvertown and Smith, 1989). The percentage of seedlings that survived through to the rosette stage was 1% under grazed conditions and 0.2% in ungrazed pastures (Forcella and Wood, 1986a). Bullock et al. (1994) found no effects of grazing on achene number per capitula, post-dispersal achene survival or between-year survivals in the seed bank. In New Zealand, frequent grazing and sowing of prairie grass cv. Matua, increased the establishment of C. vulgare (Pineiro and Harris, 1987). Establishing and maintaining dense, vigorous and competitive pasture can effectively prevent C. vulgare establishment as shown in swards of pasture species and legumes (Wardle et al., 1992). Stocking pastures is an essential step in thistle control. In Australia, conservation of ryegrass (Lolium rigidum) in pastures infested with C. vulgare has been recommended (Forcella and Wood, 1986a). An increase in ryegrass sowing density caused a decrease in C. vulgare biomass and increased time to flowering (Seefeldt and Armstrong, 2000). However, sowing C. vulgare achenes 12 months after the establishment of ryegrass did not affect emergence and survival of C. vulgare (Armstrong et al., 2002).

Mechanical Control

In pastures previously given weed control treatments, cultivation and cropping was a successful control method. Small areas can be eradicated by excavating the rosettes. Mowing and slashing can only be effective if done either immediately prior to flowering or when plants are just starting to flower (Sindel, 1991) otherwise flowering is merely delayed (Harris and Wilkinson, 1984). Cutting can reduce the number of thistles primarily by reducing achene input (Randall, 1990). The plants must be cut off below the soil surface and no leaves can remain attached or it will grow back. When mowing is carried out too early it may only delay flowering, however, if plants are cut too late in the flowering process viable seed may still develop in the capitula following cutting. As there can be a wide variation in the maturity of plants, a single mowing is unlikely to provide satisfactory control (Sindel, 1991) and repeated mowing throughout the entire growing season has proved successful (Wheatley, 1981). In addition, reduced vegetative matter from mowing will allow autumn use of herbicides to be more effective. Hand-pulling, hoeing and tillage can be successful if these operations are performed before the reproductive growth stages to prevent cypsela production (Beck, 1999). Besides encouraging competing vegetation where possible, every effort should be made to prevent established plants from going to seed. It is worth mentioning that this kind of control is very labour-intensive.

Chemical Control

Most herbicides give temporary control of thistles. Effective herbicides include dicamba (Wheatley, 1981), MCPA, 2,4-D and 2,4-D ester, (Harris and Wilkinson, 1984; Anon., 1986), or mixtures of 2,4-D + diuron, 2,4-D + triclopyr, or glyphosate + clopyralid (Leys et al., 1990; Parsons and Cuthbertson, 1992). Also, picloram, metsulfuron, chlorsulfuron (Beck, 1999), bentazon (Fellows, 1973), imazapyr (van Cantford et al., 1985), or mixtures of MCPA + terbutryne (Patterson, 1973) are used to control C. vulgare. In alfalfa fields, non-selective control can be achieved effectively by glyphosate or dicamba, with or without MCPA, in situations where legume damage is acceptable. In a strawberry plantation, 3,6-dichloropicolinic acid in gel formulation was effective at killing C. vulgare in autumn (Lawson and Wiseman, 1982). Cyanazine can be used selectively to remove C. vulgare in peas (Pisum sativum), onions (Allium cepa) and potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) (Parsons and Cuthbertson, 1992). Application rates can vary, depending on stand density and environmental conditions. Herbicides should be applied to rosettes in autumn or in the spring before the plants bolt (Beck, 1991).

Biological Control

Biological control programmes against C. vulgare have been initiated in North America as a result of its invasiveness and associated economic losses. These include the release of a gall forming fruit fly, Urophora stylata (Tephritidae), and a thistle head weevil, Rhinocyllus conicus (Curculionidae) (Forcella and Randall, 1994). In Canada, U. stylata was released in 1973 and led to a 65% reduction in achene formation in some areas after three years (Parsons and Cuthbertson, 1992). This fruit fly is effective in controlling C. vulgare in central and western Europe, but results in North America show that fly dispersal is slow and the agent only survives in dense stands of C. vulgare (Harris and Wilkinson, 1984). R. conicus has a wide host range and can be a potential threat to native thistle species in North America (Turner et al., 1987). Its potential as a biocontrol agent has been investigated in Australia (Parsons and Cuthbertson, 1992). Two rosette-feeding weevils, Ceutorhynchus trimaculatus and Trichosirocalus horridus, were released in 1974 to control other carduine thistles in North America and have now spread to C. vulgare (Kok et al., 1979; McAvoy et al., 1987). None of these insects have provided adequate control of C. vulgare (Forcella and Randall, 1994). In Czechoslovakia, Terellia serratulae and U. stylata were recommended as biocontrol agents for C. vulgare. U. stylata produces galls in the flower heads of C. vulgare causing a reduction in the number of cypselas. T. serratulae does not produce galls but larvae of this species feeding on cypselas decrease seed production of the host plant. Larvae of both species can develop in the same flower head (Kinkorova, 1991). In South Africa, U. stylata from Germany and France and R. conicus from France were released on infestations of C. vulgare on several occasions from 1983 onwards. Initially, both herbivores became established and the results were modest (Zimmermann, 1990; 1991). However, the latest survey (Hodson et al., 2003) indicates that the contribution of R. conicus has been slight due to unidentified constraints, at least in the two localized areas that the weevils currently occupy. The fungus Sclerotinia sclerotiorum has been shown to have potential as a biological herbicide for controlling C. vulgare in pastures (Bourdôt and Harvey, 1996).

Integrated Control

Control methods that have been used to date are either not very effective and just temporarily remove C. vulgare from the site, or can be costly and detrimental to crops (Wheatley, 1981). The methods that are currently applied create many practical problems (Minehan, 1996), however, a combination of these methods may help prevent this species from further invasion. Pulling out the plants by hand, grazing young plants with goats or using herbicide on young plants to prevent seed set, seeding disturbed areas with competitive native perennials (Parsons and Cuthbertson, 1992) and soil solarization (Nasr-Esfahani, 1993) could all play a part of integrated management and control. Also, disturbance of soil and vegetation can advance germination (Klinkhamer and Jong, 1988) which may help synchronize the germination of C. vulgare and improve the effectiveness of chemical control.


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