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Brief Summary


The spear thistle is a perennial species. Seedlings appear from autumn to April and they do not begin to flower until their second year of growth (4). Flowers are produced from July to September (6), and are pollinated by long-tongued bees, hover-flies and butterflies (2). After the seeds have been produced, the flowering stems die back (4).
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© Wildscreen

Source: ARKive


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The spear thistle is perhaps the most likely candidate for the Scottish national emblem (5). It is a tall thistle, with a long tap-root (2). Young plants form rosettes of bristly leaves that have a downy upper surface; rosettes persist for around 1 year before flowering stems are produced (4). These flowering stems are cottony, deeply furrowed and have spiny 'wings', they support deeply lobed and spiny leaves (2). The large purple flower heads are 3-5 cm long and 2-5 cm across and are arranged in clusters (4).
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© Wildscreen

Source: ARKive


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Comprehensive Description


This adventive plant is an obligatory biennial that forms a rosette of leaves during the first year, and bolts upward during the second year to produce flowers. It forms occasional side stems, but remains erect in stature, reaching 3-6' in height. The stout stems are light green, somewhat angular, and covered with dense white hairs. The alternate leaves are up to 7" long and 2" across. In outline, they are lanceolate in shape, but deeply pinnatifid. The widely spaced lobes narrow into points that are individually armed with a pale yellow spine. Some of the upper leaves near the flowerheads may be lanceolate or linear, but remain unlobed. Across the surface of the leaves, there are short white hairs and scattered small spines. The upper surface is dark green, while the lower surface is light green. At the base of each leaf, there are a pair of narrow wings that are dark green and decurrent against the stem. These wings are extensions of the leaves and arm the stems with spines up to ¼" long.
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© John Hilty

Source: Illinois Wildflowers


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Extremely widespread, being found throughout Britain. The listing of this species as a noxious weed subject to control does not seem to have affected its range; indeed it seems to be on the increase in man-made habitats (3). It occurs throughout the rest of Europe, reaching as far north as Scandinavia. It is also known in western Asia and North Africa, and has been introduced to North America and Chile (2).
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Source: ARKive


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Range and Habitat in Illinois

The Bull Thistle is a common plant that occurs in most counties of Illinois. This thistle is adventive from Eurasia, and it has existed in the United States since the 19th century, if not earlier. Habitats include pastures, abandoned fields, fence rows, areas along roadsides and railroads, cut-over woods, and miscellaneous waste areas. This species prefers disturbed areas and it is not common in high quality natural areas.
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© John Hilty

Source: Illinois Wildflowers


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More info for the terms: cover, natural

The origin, distribution and spread of bull thistle are reviewed by Beck [15], Mitich [106] and Forcella and Randall [50]. The following is a summary from these reviews. Bull thistle is native to Europe, from Britain and Iberia northward to Scandinavia, eastward to western Asia, and southward to northern Africa [50]. It is found on every continent except Antarctica, although its distribution is confined mostly to the northern and southern temperate zones. Bull thistle is not native to North America. It is thought to have been introduced to eastern North America during colonial times, and to western North America in scattered locations in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Bull thistle is now common throughout the Pacific States, and it is the most common and widespread of pasture and rangeland thistles in western North America. The Plants database provides a distribution map of bull thistle in the United States.

Although bull thistle has been reported in all 50 states and most Canadian provinces [75,153], it usually is not considered as problematic as musk thistle (Carduus nutans) or Scotch thistle (Onopordum acanthium) [15]. Bull thistle is most troublesome in recently or repeatedly disturbed areas such as pastures, overgrazed rangelands, forest clearcuts, and waste places; and along roads, ditches, and fences. It is also a problem in some natural areas such as Yosemite National Park, California [50].

The following lists reflect ecosystems and cover types in which bull thistle may be invasive. Because it is so widespread and has broad ecological tolerances, it is difficult to exclude many ecosystems as potential hosts of bull thistle plants or populations.


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Regional Distribution in the Western United States

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This species can be found in the following regions of the western United States (according to the Bureau of Land Management classification of Physiographic Regions of the western United States):


1 Northern Pacific Border

2 Cascade Mountains

3 Southern Pacific Border

4 Sierra Mountains

5 Columbia Plateau

6 Upper Basin and Range

7 Lower Basin and Range

8 Northern Rocky Mountains

9 Middle Rocky Mountains

10 Wyoming Basin

11 Southern Rocky Mountains

12 Colorado Plateau

13 Rocky Mountain Piedmont

14 Great Plains

15 Black Hills Uplift

16 Upper Missouri Basin and Broken Lands


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Occurrence in North America

STATES [153]:




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Physical Description



More info for the terms: forb, litter, monocarpic, phase

The following description is based on reviews by Beck [15], Klinkhamer and de Jong [80] and Forcella and Randall [50]. It presents characteristics of bull thistle that may be relevant to fire ecology, and is not meant to be used for identification. Keys for identifying bull thistle are available (e.g. [28,53,56,84,161]). A detailed description of the biology of bull thistle is given by Klinkhamer and de Jong [80].

Bull thistle is a biennial, and sometimes annual or monocarpic perennial, forb. In the juvenile phase, individual bull thistle plants form a single rosette with a taproot up to 28 inches (70 cm) long. Rosettes may develop up to 3.3 feet (1 m) in diameter. The taproot does not spread, but develops several smaller lateral roots. Stems have spiny wings and grow 1 to 6.6 feet (0.3 to 2 m) tall, with many spreading branches, and sometimes a single stem. Bull thistle stem leaves are more or less lance-shaped and 3 to 12 inches (7.6-30 cm) long, prickly hairy on the top and very hairy underneath. Lobes on leaves are tipped with stout spines. Bull thistle flowerheads are 1.5 to 2 inches (3.8 to 5 cm) in diameter, 1 to 2 inches (2.5-5 cm) long, usually solitary, and more or less clustered at the ends of shoots and branches. Flowers are subtended by narrow, spine-tipped bracts. Bull thistle fruits are achenes, 1/16th-inch (0.15 cm) long, with a long, hairy plume that is easily detached.

The litter of Cirsium species is said to inhibit the growth of other plants. In bull thistle, this is probably a result of the immobilization of nutrients during the process of litter breakdown [80]. Descriptions of mycorrhizal associations in bull thistle [17,62] and their positive effects on its growth [163] are available.


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Biennials, 30–200(–300) cm; taproots. Stems 1–many, erect or ascending, branches few–many, ascending, villous with septate trichomes. Leaves: blades oblong-lanceolate to obovate, 15–40 × 6–15 cm, margins plane or revolute, coarsely 1–2-pinnatifid with rigidly divergent lobes, sometimes merely spinose-dentate, lobes triangular to lanceolate, entire to spiny-dentate, main spines 2–10 mm, abaxial faces gray-tomentose, villous with septate trichomes along veins, adaxial green, covered with short appressed bristlelike spines, sometimes tomentose when young; basal present or absent at flowering, petioles winged, bases tapered; principal cauline winged-petiolate, mid and distal becoming sessile, well distributed or not, progressively reduced distally, at least distal decurrent as long spiny wings; distal cauline often more deeply lobed than proximal, main lobes rigidly spiny, margins spinulose, otherwise entire. Heads few–many in corymbiform or paniculiform arrays. Peduncles 1–6 cm. Involucres hemispheric to campanulate, 3–4 × 2–4 cm, loosely arachnoid-tomentose. Phyllaries in 10–12 series, strongly imbricate, linear-lanceolate (outer) to linear (inner), outer and middle appressed, (bases stramineous), margins entire, abaxial faces without glutinous ridge, apices radiating, greenish, spines 2–5 mm; apices of inner phyllaries flat, serrulate to minutely erose. Corollas purple (rarely white), 25–35 mm, tubes 18–25 mm, throats 5–6 mm, lobes 5–7 mm; style tips 3.5–6 mm. Cypselae light brown with darker streaks, 3–4.5 mm, apical collar not differentiated; pappi 20–30 mm. 2n = 68.
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© Missouri Botanical Garden, 4344 Shaw Boulevard, St. Louis, MO, 63110 USA

Source: Missouri Botanical Garden


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Diagnostic Description


Carduus vulgaris Savi, Fl. Pis. 2: 241. 1798; C. lanceolatus Linnaeus 1753, not Cirsium lanceolatum Hill 1769
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This thistle thrives in a wide variety of habitats, such as rough grassland, overgrazed pasture, dunes, and sea-cliffs. It also occurs in fertile habitats subject to disturbance, including waste ground, arable fields, spoil heaps, and on burned areas of woodland (3). As it has been discovered in pre-Neolithic deposits, it seems that spear-thistle does not require human disturbance to prosper (1).
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Source: ARKive


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Range and Habitat in Illinois

The Bull Thistle is a common plant that occurs in most counties of Illinois. This thistle is adventive from Eurasia, and it has existed in the United States since the 19th century, if not earlier. Habitats include pastures, abandoned fields, fence rows, areas along roadsides and railroads, cut-over woods, and miscellaneous waste areas. This species prefers disturbed areas and it is not common in high quality natural areas.
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© John Hilty

Source: Illinois Wildflowers


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Comments: Meadows, disturbed areas, roadsides, drainage ditches (but not in water), open forests.

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© NatureServe

Source: NatureServe


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Habitat characteristics

More info for the terms: density, fresh, mesic, shrub

Bull thistle is a very widespread weed that can grow in a wide range of environments but is most troublesome in recently or repeatedly disturbed areas such as pastures, overgrazed rangelands, recently burned forests and forest clearcuts, and along roads, ditches, and fences. Even small-scale disturbances such as gopher mounds promote bull thistle establishment and survival [122], and density tends to increase as grazing intensity increases. Bull thistle is seldom found in ungrazed prairies and pastures [15,49,111,159]. Similarly, in Yosemite National Park bull thistle germination was promoted by removal of vegetation and further promoted by soil disturbance [120]. Bull thistle can also colonize areas in relatively undisturbed grasslands, meadows and forest openings [122]. 

The distribution of bull thistle in Eurasia is closely linked to that of cultivated land. In the U.S., bull thistle is common in regions with intensive cattle commerce. In Canada, it is present in agricultural areas but absent from prairies [80]. In California, bull thistle is widespread and most common in coastal grasslands, along edges of fresh and brackish marshes, in meadows, and in mesic forest openings in the mountains [122]. Landscape patch types where bull thistle was found on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington include riparian cobble bars, riparian shrub communities, and clearcuts [35].

Bull thistle is found on dry and wet soils, but is most common on soils with intermediate moisture [80,120]. It is largely absent from deeply shaded and waterlogged habitats. Bull thistle tolerates a wide range of pH values, though it is rare on soils of pH <4.8-5.0 [80]. It proliferates in pastures subject to nitrogen fertilization [15,80], but has no apparent relationship with potassium or phosphorus content. Bull thistle is less common in sand and on soils of >30% humus content, and almost absent from pure clay [80].

Bull thistle is found as far north as 67°50' N latitude in Scandinavia. In shade, bull thistle is restricted to south-facing slopes. In dry habitats such as coastal dunes it is confined to north-facing slopes [80]. It has been suggested that bull thistle plants are not very invasive in the southern part of its North American range. This has been attributed to a peculiarity in their dispersal biology, where the achenes remain enclosed inside the seedheads after they are fully mature and are released only at the end of the season when the whole plant eventually falls over. Numerous achenes then germinate in situ in a cluster, but apparently only 1 of them survives to maturity [112]. 

Infestations of bull thistle in North America have been reported as high as 9,200 feet (2,800 m) [37]. Bull thistle was found on alpine sites in Utah [65], and on a subalpine riparian site in Montana [91]. The following table provides some elevational ranges for bull thistle by state:

Area Elevational range References
California  up to 7,600 feet (2,300 m) [68]
Colorado up to 9,000 feet (2,700 m) [133]
New Mexico 4,500 to 7,500 feet (1,400-2,300 m) [93]
Utah 4,420 to 9,060 feet (1,340-2,745 m) [161]


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Habitat: Rangeland Cover Types

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This species is known to occur in association with the following Rangeland Cover Types (as classified by the Society for Range Management, SRM):

More info for the terms: cover, hardwood, shrub, vine


101 Bluebunch wheatgrass

102 Idaho fescue

103 Green fescue

104 Antelope bitterbrush-bluebunch wheatgrass

105 Antelope bitterbrush-Idaho fescue

106 Bluegrass scabland

107 Western juniper/big sagebrush/bluebunch wheatgrass

108 Alpine Idaho fescue

109 Ponderosa pine shrubland

110 Ponderosa pine-grassland

201 Blue oak woodland

202 Coast live oak woodland

203 Riparian woodland

204 North coastal shrub

205 Coastal sage shrub

206 Chamise chaparral

207 Scrub oak mixed chaparral

208 Ceanothus mixed chaparral

209 Montane shrubland

210 Bitterbrush

211 Creosote bush scrub

212 Blackbush

213 Alpine grassland

214 Coastal prairie

215 Valley grassland

216 Montane meadows

217 Wetlands

301 Bluebunch wheatgrass-blue grama

302 Bluebunch wheatgrass-Sandberg bluegrass

303 Bluebunch wheatgrass-western wheatgrass

304 Idaho fescue-bluebunch wheatgrass

305 Idaho fescue-Richardson needlegrass

306 Idaho fescue-slender wheatgrass

307 Idaho fescue-threadleaf sedge

308 Idaho fescue-tufted hairgrass

309 Idaho fescue-western wheatgrass

310 Needle-and-thread-blue grama

311 Rough fescue-bluebunch wheatgrass

312 Rough fescue-Idaho fescue

313 Tufted hairgrass-sedge

314 Big sagebrush-bluebunch wheatgrass

315 Big sagebrush-Idaho fescue

316 Big sagebrush-rough fescue

317 Bitterbrush-bluebunch wheatgrass

318 Bitterbrush-Idaho fescue

319 Bitterbrush-rough fescue

320 Black sagebrush-bluebunch wheatgrass

321 Black sagebrush-Idaho fescue

322 Curlleaf mountain-mahogany-bluebunch wheatgrass

323 Shrubby cinquefoil-rough fescue

324 Threetip sagebrush-Idaho fescue

401 Basin big sagebrush

402 Mountain big sagebrush

403 Wyoming big sagebrush

404 Threetip sagebrush

405 Black sagebrush

406 Low sagebrush

407 Stiff sagebrush

408 Other sagebrush types

409 Tall forb

410 Alpine rangeland

411 Aspen woodland

412 Juniper-pinyon woodland

413 Gambel oak

414 Salt desert shrub

415 Curlleaf mountain-mahogany

416 True mountain-mahogany

417 Littleleaf mountain-mahogany

418 Bigtooth maple

419 Bittercherry

420 Snowbrush

421 Chokecherry-serviceberry-rose

422 Riparian

501 Saltbush-greasewood

502 Grama-galleta

503 Arizona chaparral

504 Juniper-pinyon pine woodland

505 Grama-tobosa shrub

506 Creosotebush-bursage

507 Palo verde-cactus

508 Creosotebush-tarbush

509 Transition between oak-juniper woodland and mahogany-oak association

601 Bluestem prairie

602 Bluestem-prairie sandreed

603 Prairie sandreed-needlegrass

604 Bluestem-grama prairie

605 Sandsage prairie

606 Wheatgrass-bluestem-needlegrass

607 Wheatgrass-needlegrass

608 Wheatgrass-grama-needlegrass

609 Wheatgrass-grama

610 Wheatgrass

611 Blue grama-buffalo grass

612 Sagebrush-grass

613 Fescue grassland

614 Crested wheatgrass

615 Wheatgrass-saltgrass-grama

701 Alkali sacaton-tobosagrass

702 Black grama-alkali sacaton

703 Black grama-sideoats grama

704 Blue grama-western wheatgrass

705 Blue grama-galleta

706 Blue grama-sideoats grama

707 Blue grama-sideoats grama-black grama

708 Bluestem-dropseed

709 Bluestem-grama

710 Bluestem prairie

711 Bluestem-sacahuista prairie

712 Galleta-alkali sacaton

713 Grama-muhly-threeawn

714 Grama-bluestem

715 Grama-buffalo grass

716 Grama-feathergrass

717 Little bluestem-Indiangrass-Texas wintergrass

718 Mesquite-grama

720 Sand bluestem-little bluestem (dunes)

721 Sand bluestem-little bluestem (plains)

722 Sand sagebrush-mixed prairie

723 Sea oats

724 Sideoats grama-New Mexico feathergrass-winterfat

725 Vine mesquite-alkali sacaton

727 Mesquite-buffalo grass

729 Mesquite

730 Sand shinnery oak

731 Cross timbers-Oklahoma

732 Cross timbers-Texas (little bluestem-post oak)

733 Juniper-oak

734 Mesquite-oak

735 Sideoats grama-sumac-juniper

801 Savanna

802 Missouri prairie

803 Missouri glades

804 Tall fescue

805 Riparian

808 Sand pine scrub

809 Mixed hardwood and pine

815 Upland hardwood hammocks

816 Cabbage palm hammocks

817 Oak hammocks


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Habitat: Cover Types

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This species is known to occur in association with the following cover types (as classified by the Society of American Foresters):

More info for the terms: cover, swamp


1 Jack pine

5 Balsam fir

12 Black spruce

13 Black spruce-tamarack

14 Northern pin oak

15 Red pine

16 Aspen

17 Pin cherry

18 Paper birch

19 Gray birch-red maple

20 White pine-northern red oak-red maple

21 Eastern white pine

22 White pine-hemlock

23 Eastern hemlock

24 Hemlock-yellow birch

25 Sugar maple-beech-yellow birch

26 Sugar maple-basswood

27 Sugar maple

28 Black cherry-maple

30 Red spruce-yellow birch

31 Red spruce-sugar maple-beech

32 Red spruce

33 Red spruce-balsam fir

34 Red spruce-Fraser fir

35 Paper birch-red spruce-balsam fir

37 Northern white-cedar

38 Tamarack

39 Black ash-American elm-red maple

40 Post oak-blackjack oak

42 Bur oak

43 Bear oak

44 Chestnut oak

45 Pitch pine

46 Eastern redcedar

50 Black locust

51 White pine-chestnut oak

52 White oak-black oak-northern red oak

53 White oak

55 Northern red oak

57 Yellow-poplar

58 Yellow-poplar-eastern hemlock

59 Yellow-poplar-white oak-northern red oak

60 Beech-sugar maple

61 River birch-sycamore

62 Silver maple-American elm

63 Cottonwood

64 Sassafras-persimmon

65 Pin oak-sweetgum

66 Ashe juniper-redberry (Pinchot) juniper

68 Mesquite

69 Sand pine

70 Longleaf pine

71 Longleaf pine-scrub oak

72 Southern scrub oak

73 Southern redcedar

74 Cabbage palmetto

75 Shortleaf pine

76 Shortleaf pine-oak

78 Virginia pine-oak

79 Virginia pine

80 Loblolly pine-shortleaf pine

81 Loblolly pine

82 Loblolly pine-hardwood

83 Longleaf pine-slash pine

84 Slash pine

85 Slash pine-hardwood

87 Sweetgum-yellow-poplar

88 Willow oak-water oak-diamondleaf (laurel) oak

89 Live oak

91 Swamp chestnut oak-cherrybark oak

92 Sweetgum-willow oak

93 Sugarberry-American elm-green ash

94 Sycamore-sweetgum-American elm

95 Black willow

96 Overcup oak-water hickory

97 Atlantic white-cedar

98 Pond pine

100 Pondcypress

101 Baldcypress

102 Baldcypress-tupelo

103 Water tupelo-swamp tupelo

104 Sweetbay-swamp tupelo-redbay

105 Tropical hardwoods

106 Mangrove

107 White spruce

108 Red maple

109 Hawthorn

110 Black oak

111 South Florida slash pine

201 White spruce

202 White spruce-paper birch

203 Balsam poplar

204 Black spruce

205 Mountain hemlock

206 Engelmann spruce-subalpine fir

207 Red fir

208 Whitebark pine

209 Bristlecone pine

210 Interior Douglas-fir

211 White fir

212 Western larch

213 Grand fir

215 Western white pine

216 Blue spruce

217 Aspen

218 Lodgepole pine

219 Limber pine

220 Rocky Mountain juniper

221 Red alder

222 Black cottonwood-willow

223 Sitka spruce

224 Western hemlock

225 Western hemlock-Sitka spruce

226 Coastal true fir-hemlock

227 Western redcedar-western hemlock

228 Western redcedar

229 Pacific Douglas-fir

230 Douglas-fir-western hemlock

231 Port-Orford-cedar

232 Redwood

233 Oregon white oak

234 Douglas-fir-tanoak-Pacific madrone

235 Cottonwood-willow

236 Bur oak

237 Interior ponderosa pine

238 Western juniper

239 Pinyon-juniper

240 Arizona cypress

241 Western live oak

242 Mesquite

243 Sierra Nevada mixed conifer

244 Pacific ponderosa pine-Douglas-fir

245 Pacific ponderosa pine

246 California black oak

247 Jeffrey pine

248 Knobcone pine

249 Canyon live oak

250 Blue oak-foothills pine

251 White spruce-aspen

252 Paper birch

253 Black spruce-white spruce

254 Black spruce-paper birch

255 California coast live oak

256 California mixed subalpine


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Habitat: Plant Associations

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This species is known to occur in association with the following plant community types (as classified by Küchler 1964):

More info for the terms: bog, shrub


K001 Spruce-cedar-hemlock forest

K002 Cedar-hemlock-Douglas-fir forest

K003 Silver fir-Douglas-fir forest

K004 Fir-hemlock forest

K005 Mixed conifer forest

K006 Redwood forest

K007 Red fir forest

K008 Lodgepole pine-subalpine forest

K009 Pine-cypress forest

K010 Ponderosa shrub forest

K011 Western ponderosa forest

K012 Douglas-fir forest

K013 Cedar-hemlock-pine forest

K014 Grand fir-Douglas-fir forest

K015 Western spruce-fir forest

K016 Eastern ponderosa forest

K017 Black Hills pine forest

K018 Pine-Douglas-fir forest

K019 Arizona pine forest

K020 Spruce-fir-Douglas-fir forest

K021 Southwestern spruce-fir forest

K022 Great Basin pine forest

K023 Juniper-pinyon woodland

K024 Juniper steppe woodland

K025 Alder-ash forest

K026 Oregon oakwoods

K027 Mesquite bosques

K028 Mosaic of K002 and K026

K029 California mixed evergreen forest

K030 California oakwoods

K031 Oak-juniper woodland

K032 Transition between K031 and K037

K033 Chaparral

K034 Montane chaparral

K035 Coastal sagebrush

K036 Mosaic of K030 and K035

K037 Mountain-mahogany-oak scrub

K038 Great Basin sagebrush

K039 Blackbrush

K040 Saltbush-greasewood

K041 Creosote bush

K042 Creosote bush-bursage

K043 Paloverde-cactus shrub

K044 Creosote bush-tarbush

K047 Fescue-oatgrass

K048 California steppe

K049 Tule marshes

K050 Fescue-wheatgrass

K051 Wheatgrass-bluegrass

K052 Alpine meadows and barren

K053 Grama-galleta steppe

K054 Grama-tobosa prairie

K055 Sagebrush steppe

K056 Wheatgrass-needlegrass shrubsteppe

K057 Galleta-threeawn shrubsteppe

K058 Grama-tobosa shrubsteppe

K059 Trans-Pecos shrub savanna

K063 Foothills prairie

K064 Grama-needlegrass-wheatgrass

K065 Grama-buffalo grass

K066 Wheatgrass-needlegrass

K067 Wheatgrass-bluestem-needlegrass

K068 Wheatgrass-grama-buffalo grass

K069 Bluestem-grama prairie

K070 Sandsage-bluestem prairie

K072 Sea oats prairie

K073 Northern cordgrass prairie

K074 Bluestem prairie

K075 Nebraska Sandhills prairie

K076 Blackland prairie

K077 Bluestem-sacahuista prairie

K081 Oak savanna

K082 Mosaic of K074 and K100

K083 Cedar glades

K084 Cross Timbers

K085 Mesquite-buffalo grass

K088 Fayette prairie

K089 Black Belt

K090 Live oak-sea oats

K093 Great Lakes spruce-fir forest

K094 Conifer bog

K095 Great Lakes pine forest

K096 Northeastern spruce-fir forest

K097 Southeastern spruce-fir forest

K098 Northern floodplain forest

K099 Maple-basswood forest

K100 Oak-hickory forest

K101 Elm-ash forest

K102 Beech-maple forest

K103 Mixed mesophytic forest

K104 Appalachian oak forest

K106 Northern hardwoods

K107 Northern hardwoods-fir forest

K108 Northern hardwoods-spruce forest

K109 Transition between K104 and K106

K110 Northeastern oak-pine forest

K111 Oak-hickory-pine

K112 Southern mixed forest

K113 Southern floodplain forest

K114 Pocosin

K115 Sand pine scrub

K116 Subtropical pine forest


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Habitat: Ecosystem

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This species is known to occur in the following ecosystem types (as named by the U.S. Forest Service in their Forest and Range Ecosystem [FRES] Type classification):


FRES10 White-red-jack pine

FRES11 Spruce-fir

FRES12 Longleaf-slash pine

FRES13 Loblolly-shortleaf pine

FRES14 Oak-pine

FRES15 Oak-hickory

FRES16 Oak-gum-cypress

FRES17 Elm-ash-cottonwood

FRES18 Maple-beech-birch

FRES19 Aspen-birch

FRES20 Douglas-fir

FRES21 Ponderosa pine

FRES22 Western white pine

FRES23 Fir-spruce

FRES24 Hemlock-Sitka spruce

FRES25 Larch

FRES26 Lodgepole pine

FRES27 Redwood

FRES28 Western hardwoods

FRES29 Sagebrush

FRES30 Desert shrub

FRES33 Southwestern shrubsteppe

FRES34 Chaparral-mountain shrub

FRES35 Pinyon-juniper

FRES36 Mountain grasslands

FRES37 Mountain meadows

FRES38 Plains grasslands

FRES39 Prairie

FRES40 Desert grasslands

FRES41 Wet grasslands

FRES42 Annual grasslands

FRES44 Alpine


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Foodplant / internal feeder
larva of Acanthiophilus helianthi feeds within capitulum of Cirsium vulgare
Remarks: Other: uncertain

Foodplant / internal feeder
larva of Apion carduorum feeds within stem? of Cirsium vulgare
Other: major host/prey

In Great Britain and/or Ireland:
Foodplant / parasite
sporangium of Bremia lactucae parasitises live Cirsium vulgare
Other: unusual host/prey

Foodplant / internal feeder
larva of Chaetostomella cylindrica feeds within capitulum of Cirsium vulgare
Remarks: Other: uncertain

Foodplant / internal feeder
larva of Cheilosia grossa feeds within root (after stem) of multi-stemmed plant of Cirsium vulgare
Remarks: season: 6-7

Foodplant / internal feeder
larva of Ensina sonchi feeds within capitulum of Cirsium vulgare

Foodplant / parasite
Erysiphe mayorii parasitises Cirsium vulgare

Foodplant / parasite
Golovinomyces cichoracearum parasitises live Cirsium vulgare
Other: major host/prey

Foodplant / feeds on
larva of Larinus planus feeds on Cirsium vulgare

Foodplant / open feeder
larva of Lema cyanella grazes on windowed leaf (upper surface) of Cirsium vulgare

Foodplant / saprobe
immersed pseudothecium of Leptosphaeria macrospora is saprobic on dead stem of Cirsium vulgare
Remarks: season: 4-6

Foodplant / saprobe
partly immersed pseudothecium of Leptosphaeria purpurea is saprobic on dead stem of Cirsium vulgare
Remarks: season: 6-7

Foodplant / saprobe
immersed pseudothecium of Nodulosphaeria dolioloides is saprobic on dead stem of Cirsium vulgare

Foodplant / saprobe
immersed pseudothecium of Ophiobolus acuminatus is saprobic on dead stem of Cirsium vulgare
Remarks: season: 3-6
Other: major host/prey

Foodplant / saprobe
immersed pycnidium of Phoma coelomycetous anamorph of Phoma rubella is saprobic on dead, red stained (epidermis) stem of Cirsium vulgare
Remarks: season: 4-5

Plant / resting place / within
puparium of Phytomyza autumnalis may be found in leaf-mine of Cirsium vulgare

Foodplant / parasite
amphigenous telium of Puccinia cnici parasitises live leaf of Cirsium vulgare
Other: major host/prey

Foodplant / parasite
amphigenous telium of Puccinia cnici-oleracei parasitises live leaf of Cirsium vulgare
Remarks: season: 7-11
Other: minor host/prey

Foodplant / spot causer
amphigenous colony of Ramularia hyphomycetous anamorph of Ramularia cynarae causes spots on live leaf of Cirsium vulgare

Foodplant / feeds on
larva of Rhinocyllus conicus feeds on Cirsium vulgare

Foodplant / internal feeder
larva of Tephritis cometa feeds within capitulum of Cirsium vulgare

Foodplant / internal feeder
larva of Tephritis conura feeds within capitulum of Cirsium vulgare
Remarks: Other: uncertain

Foodplant / feeds on
larva of Terellia serratulae feeds on Cirsium vulgare

Foodplant / internal feeder
larva of Terellia tussilaginis feeds within capitulum of Cirsium vulgare
Other: unusual host/prey

Foodplant / sap sucker
adult of Tingis cardui sucks sap of involucre of Cirsium vulgare
Remarks: season: 8-7

Foodplant / gall
larva of Urophora stylata causes gall of receptacle of Cirsium vulgare
Remarks: season: -9
Other: major host/prey

Foodplant / internal feeder
larva of Xyphosia miliaria feeds within capitulum of Cirsium vulgare


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Flower-Visiting Insects of Bull Thistle in Illinois

Cirsium vulgare (Bull Thistle) introduced
(Bees suck nectar or collect pollen, Syrphid flies & beetles feed on pollen, other insects suck nectar; some observations are from Graenicher and Krombein et al. as indicated below, otherwise they are from Robertson)

Bees (long-tongued)
Apidae (Bombini): Bombus auricomus sn, Bombus griseocallis sn fq, Bombus impatiens sn fq, Bombus pensylvanica sn cp fq icp (Rb, Gr), Bombus vagans sn cp (Rb, Gr), Psithyrus citrinus sn, Psithyrus variabilis sn; Anthophoridae (Anthophorini): Anthophora walshii sn; Anthophoridae (Ceratinini): Ceratina dupla dupla sn cp (Gr); Anthophoridae (Emphorini): Ptilothrix bombiformis sn; Anthophoridae (Epeolini): Triepeolus concavus sn, Triepeolus donatus sn, Triepeolus lunatus concolor sn fq, Triepeolus nevadensis sn, Triepeolus remigatus sn; Anthophoridae (Eucerini): Melissodes agilis sn, Melissodes bimaculata bimaculata sn, Melissodes coloradensis sn, Melissodes communis sn, Melissodes comptoides sn, Melissodes desponsa sn cp fq icp olg (Rb, Gr), Melissodes rustica sn, Melissodes trinodis sn, (Rb, Gr), Svastra obliqua obliqua sn fq; Megachilidae (Megachilini): Megachile latimanus sn cp fq (Rb, Gr), Megachile parallela parallela sn, Megachile pugnatus sn cp (Gr)

Bees (short-tongued)
Halictidae (Halictinae): Agapostemon sericea sn (Rb, Gr), Agapostemon texanus texanus sn cp, Agapostemon virescens sn cp (Rb, Gr), Halictus ligatus cp np, Halictus rubicunda sn (Gr), Lasioglossum pilosus pilosus cp np; Halictidae (Nomiinae): Nomia nortoni sn (Rb, Kr); Colletidae (Hylaeinae): Hylaeus mesillae (Kr)

Bombyliidae: Exoprosopa fasciata sn, Systoechus vulgaris sn fq; Conopidae: Physocephala tibialis sn; Syrphidae: Epistrophe emarginata fp (Gr), Toxomerus geminatus fp (Gr)

Nymphalidae: Cercyonis pegala alope (Gr), Danaus plexippus (Rb, Gr), Phyciodes tharos, Speyeria cybele (Gr), Speyeria idalia (Rb, Gr); Papilionidae: Papilio glaucus (Rb, Gr), Papilio polyxenes asterias (Rb, Gr), Papilio troilus; Pieridae: Colias philodice, Eurema nicippe, Pontia protodice

Hesperiidae: Poanes zabulon, Polites peckius (Rb, Gr), Polites themistocles fq (Rb, Gr), Thorybes bathyllus

Ctenuchidae: Cisseps fulvicollis; Noctuidae: Helicoverpa zea (Gr)

Cantharidae: Chauliognathus pennsylvanicus fp (Gr); Melyridae: Malachius thevenetti fp (Gr)


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Faunal Associations

The nectar and pollen of the flowers attract many kinds of long-tongued bees, including bumblebees, large Leaf-Cutting bees, Miner bees, and Epeoline Cuckoo bees. The flower nectar also attracts butterflies (especially swallowtails), skippers, and bee flies. Green Metallic bees and other Halictid bees may collect pollen from the flowers, but they are non-pollinating. The caterpillars of the butterfly Vanessa cardui (Painted Lady) feed on the foliage. There are also many moth species with caterpillars that consume various parts of thistles (see Moth Table). The seeds are eaten by Goldfinches and the Clay-Colored Sparrow. Goldfinches also use the tufts of hair as construction material for their little nests. Mammalian herbivores don't eat the Bull Thistle because it is heavily armed with spines. Even in overgrazed pastures where cattle and sheep have little to eat, the Bull Thistle is one of the few plants that is left alone.
Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial 3.0 (CC BY-NC 3.0)

© John Hilty

Source: Illinois Wildflowers


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General Ecology

Broad-scale Impacts of Plant Response to Fire

More info for the terms: duff, forb, frequency, prescribed fire, restoration, severity, shrubs, succession

Response of bull thistle to fire depends on the conditions of the fire such as
fire severity, time of burning, prior and subsequent weather conditions
[30], site conditions (e.g., soil moisture content) and composition of the preburn community and seedbank. 

Observations in tallgrass prairie sites in South Dakota indicate
that late spring prescribed burning on a
4- to 5-year rotation encourages the growth of
native plants and discourages the growth of Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense),
musk thistle, and bull thistle [31,129].
Additionally, Hulbert [70] suggests that late spring burning in these ecosystems results in fewer forbs
but greater grass production than fall or early spring burning.

A spring prescribed fire following clearcutting in 1968 on Miller Creek in western Montana (when the
lower half of the duff was still wet from snowmelt and rain)
left a continuous, intact duff mantle as a seedbed and killed the aerial
portions of understory herbs and shrubs. Forest succession then began with regrowth
of heartleaf arnica (Arnica cordifolia) and beargrass (Xerophyllum
tenax) and establishment of the offsite colonizers fireweed (Epilobium
angustifolium) and bull thistle. Other sites in the area that were
harvested during the same time period but either unburned or burned in summer or
fall did not have bull thistle in the postdisturbance plant community [137].
Spring prescribed burning in a basin big sagebrush community in east-central Oregon had no significant
effect on bull thistle frequency in postfire year 1 [134]. See the Research Project Summary of this work for more information on fire effects
on bull thistle and 60 additional forb, grass, and woody plant species.
Lyon's Research Paper and the Research Project Summary
Vegetation response to restoration treatments in ponderosa pine-Douglas-fir forests of western Montana
also provide information on prescribed fire and postfire response of bull thistle and other plant community species.
More research is needed on short- and long-term secondary effects of fire on bull thistle. See "Postfire
colonization potential" below for more details.


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Plant Response to Fire

More info for the terms: cover, prescribed burn, wildfire

Bull thistle colonization may be enhanced [10,16,102,129] or depressed [31,70] by fire. Observations at preserves in northeastern Oregon suggest that bull thistle establishment is encouraged by wildfire [129]. Conversely, prescribed burning on tallgrass prairie sites in South Dakota discourages bull thistle and encourages native plants [31,129]

Fire can create conditions that are favorable to the establishment of bull thistle such as an open canopy and areas of bare soil, so if bull thistle seeds are present in or dispersed into the burned area, it is likely to establish in the postfire community. Bull thistle densities increased dramatically after a prescribed burn in Yosemite Valley, leading managers to believe that burning promotes thistle populations. It is unclear, however, whether prescribed burning alone caused the increase in bull thistle cover [121].


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Immediate Effect of Fire

More info for the terms: frequency, low-severity fire, root crown

More research is needed to determine the immediate effects of fire on bull thistle plants and seeds. Bull thistle may or may not be killed by fire. In south-central Idaho on a Douglas-fir site where bull thistle was present before prescribed burning, bull thistle frequency declined immediately following burning, then increased 3 years after the burn [90]. Musk thistle, a biennial thistle with a similar life history, may be killed by high-severity fires that kill the root crown, but may survive low-severity fires (see musk thistle). It has been suggested that combustion would only readily take place on mature thistle plants, from which seed would have already dispersed [116].

It is also unclear what effects fire has on bull thistle seeds in the soil. Incidents of rapid colonization after fire [10,16,102] suggest that either bull thistle seeds were present in the soil at the time of the fire and survived to germinate after the overstory was removed, or that bull thistle seeds were dispersed after fire from off-site seed sources. However, when experimental heat treatments including 6 combinations of temperature, duration, and soil moisture were applied to bull thistle seeds from an old-growth Douglas-fir forest seed bank, researchers concluded that even low-severity fire could kill bull thistle seeds. Seed survival was lower in wet soil than in dry soil. In wet soil, 35% of the bull thistle seeds tested survived 122 degrees Fahrenheit (50 °C) for 60 minutes, and 0 seeds survived 167 degrees Fahrenheit (75 °C) or 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 °C) for 15 minutes. In dry soil, 44% survived 122 degrees Fahrenheit (50 °C) for 60 minutes, 32% survived 167 degrees Fahrenheit (75 °C) for 15 minutes, and 6% survived 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 °C) for 15 minutes [25].


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Fire Ecology

More info for the terms: fire exclusion, fire occurrence, fire regime, historical fire regime, presence, secondary colonizer

Bull thistle reproduces by abundant seed, some of which may disperse over moderate distances by wind and some of which may remain dormant in the soil for several years (research thus far suggests up to 5 years). Fire can create conditions that are favorable for bull thistle establishment such as an open canopy and areas of bare soil, so if bull thistle seeds are present in or dispersed into the burn area, it is likely to establish in the postfire community. Several examples from the literature indicate bull thistle establishment within a few years after fire [4,5,10,16,137,141,143]. However, in some cases bull thistle was also present in unburned plots [5,7,136], and in another case [143] fire was combined with logging, so it is unclear whether fire was the driving influence in bull thistle establishment. More research is needed regarding adaptations of bull thistle to fire.

Bull thistle is the most common and widespread thistle of pastures and rangelands in western North America, so it occurs in a large number of ecosystems with different FIRE REGIMES. Introduced species can alter the rate of fire spread, the probability of fire occurrence, and the intensity of fire in an ecosystem [30]. It is unclear how the presence of bull thistle alters the fire regime of a given site, and it is unclear how a historical fire regime might affect the presence or abundance of bull thistle at a given site. Dominant species of forest communities in which bull thistle has been noted as a primary or secondary colonizer after disturbance are described in Habitat Types and Plant Communities. Bull thistle also occurs in tallgrass prairie ecosystems, where fire can stimulate flowering of native grasses [31]. In Kansas, frequent burning of tallgrass prairie is said to be effective in keeping out exotic plants on sites where prairie grasses are vigorous [70]. Bull thistle did not occur in any of these communities at the time in which historic fire regimes were functioning, but has established since fire exclusion began. It is unclear how the presence of bull thistle might affect FIRE REGIMES in these communities.

Because it is so widespread and has broad ecological tolerances, it is difficult to exclude many ecosystems as potential hosts of bull thistle plants or populations. The following table provides fire regime intervals for several plant communities in which bull thistle may be found.

Community or Ecosystem Dominant Species Fire Return Interval Range (years)
silver fir-Douglas-fir Abies amabilis-Pseudotsuga menziesii var. menziesii > 200 
grand fir A. grandis 35-200 [6]
maple-beech-birch Acer-Fagus-Betula > 1000 
silver maple-American elm A. saccharinum-Ulmus americana
sugar maple A. saccharum > 1000 
sugar maple-basswood A. s.-Tilia americana > 1000 [158]
California chaparral Adenostoma and/or Arctostaphylos spp. 115]
bluestem prairie Andropogon gerardii var. gerardii-Schizachyrium scoparium 82,115]
Nebraska sandhills prairie A. g. var. paucipilus-Schizachyrium scoparium
bluestem-Sacahuista prairie A. littoralis-Spartina spartinae
sagebrush steppe Artemisia tridentata/Pseudoroegneria spicata 20-70 [115]
basin big sagebrush A. t. var. tridentata 12-43 [134]
mountain big sagebrush A. t. var. vaseyana 15-40 [7,21,105]
Wyoming big sagebrush A. t. var. wyomingensis 10-70 (40**) [156,168]
coastal sagebrush A. californica
plains grasslands Bouteloua spp.
cheatgrass Bromus tectorum
California montane chaparral Ceanothus and/or Arctostaphylos spp. 50-100 [115]
sugarberry-America elm-green ash Celtis laevigata-Ulmus americana-Fraxinus pennsylvanica 158]
curlleaf mountain-mahogany* Cercocarpus ledifolius 13-1000 [8,135]
mountain-mahogany-Gambel oak scrub C. l.-Quercus gambelii 115]
Atlantic white-cedar Chamaecyparis thyoides 35 to > 200 [158]
Arizona cypress Cupressus arizonica
northern cordgrass prairie Distichlis spicata-Spartina spp. 1-3 [115]
beech-sugar maple Fagus spp.-Acer saccharum > 1000 [158]
California steppe Festuca-Danthonia spp. 115]
black ash Fraxinus nigra 158]
juniper-oak savanna Juniperus ashei-Quercus virginiana
Ashe juniper J. a.
western juniper J. occidentalis 20-70 
Rocky Mountain juniper J. scopulorum
cedar glades J. virginiana 3-7 
tamarack Larix laricina 35-200 [115]
western larch L. occidentalis 25-100 [6]
yellow-poplar Liriodendron tulipifera 158]
wheatgrass plains grasslands Pascopyrum smithii 115]
Great Lakes spruce-fir Picea-Abies spp. 35 to > 200 
northeastern spruce-fir P.-A. spp. 35-200 [44]
southeastern spruce-fir P.-A. spp. 35 to > 200 [158]
Engelmann spruce-subalpine fir P. engelmannii-A. lasiocarpa 35 to > 200 [6]
black spruce P. mariana 35-200 [44]
blue spruce* P. pungens 35-200 [6]
red spruce* P. rubens 35-200 [44]
pine-cypress forest Pinus-Cupressus spp. 6]
pinyon-juniper P.-Juniperus spp. 115]
whitebark pine* P. albicaulis 50-200 [6]
jack pine P. banksiana 44]
Mexican pinyon P. cembroides 20-70 [108,148]
Rocky Mountain lodgepole pine* P. contorta var. latifolia 25-300+ [3,6,132]
Sierra lodgepole pine* P. c. var. murrayana 35-200 [6]
shortleaf pine P. echinata 2-15 
slash pine P. elliottii 3-8 [158]
Jeffrey pine P. jeffreyi 5-30 
western white pine* P. monticola 50-200 [6]
longleaf-slash pine P. palustris-P. elliottii 1-4 [110,158]
Pacific ponderosa pine* P. ponderosa var. ponderosa 1-47 [6]
interior ponderosa pine* P. p. var. scopulorum 2-30 [6,12,86]
Arizona pine P. p. var. arizonica 2-10 [6]
Table Mountain pine P. pungens 158]
red pine (Great Lakes region) P. resinosa 10-200 (10**) [44,51]
red-white-jack pine* P. r.-P. strobus-P. banksiana 10-300 [44,66]
pitch pine P. rigida 6-25 [19,67]
pocosin P. serotina 3-8 
eastern white pine P. strobus 35-200 
eastern white pine-eastern hemlock P. s.-Tsuga canadensis 35-200 
eastern white pine-northern red oak-red maple P. s.-Quercus rubra-Acer rubrum 35-200 
loblolly pine P. taeda 3-8 
loblolly-shortleaf pine P. t.-P. echinata 10 to
Virginia pine P. virginiana 10 to
Virginia pine-oak P. v.-Quercus spp. 10 to
sycamore-sweetgum-American elm Platanus occidentalis-Liquidambar styraciflua-Ulmus americana 158]
galleta-threeawn shrubsteppe Pleuraphis jamesii-Aristida purpurea
eastern cottonwood Populus deltoides 115]
aspen-birch P. tremuloides-Betula papyrifera 35-200 [44,158]
quaking aspen (west of the Great Plains) P. t. 7-120 [6,59,101]
mesquite Prosopis glandulosa 100,115]
black cherry-sugar maple Prunus serotina-Acer saccharum > 1000 [158]
mountain grasslands Pseudoroegneria spicata 3-40 (10**) [3,6]
Rocky Mountain Douglas-fir* Pseudotsuga menziesii var. glauca 25-100 [6]
coastal Douglas-fir* P. m. var. menziesii 40-240 [6,109,130]
California mixed evergreen P. m. var. m.-Lithocarpus densiflorus-Arbutus menziesii
California oakwoods Quercus spp. 6]
oak-hickory Q.-Carya spp. 158]
oak-juniper woodland (Southwest) Q.-Juniperus spp. 115]
northeastern oak-pine Q.-Pinus spp. 10 to 158]
oak-gum-cypress Q.-Nyssa-spp.-Taxodium distichum 35 to > 200 [110]
coast live oak Q. agrifolia 6]
white oak-black oak-northern red oak Q. alba-Q. velutina-Q. rubra 158]
canyon live oak Q. chrysolepis
blue oak-foothills pine Q. douglasii-Pinus sabiana 6]
northern pin oak Q. ellipsoidalis 158]
Oregon white oak Q. garryana 6]
bear oak Q. ilicifolia 158]
California black oak Q. kelloggii 5-30 [115
bur oak Q. macrocarpa 158]
oak savanna Q. m./Andropogon gerardii-Schizachyrium scoparium 2-14 [115,158]
chestnut oak Q. prinus 3-8 
northern red oak Q. rubra 10 to
post oak-blackjack oak Q. stellata-Q. marilandica
black oak Q. velutina
live oak Q. virginiana 10 to158]
interior live oak Q. wislizenii 6]
blackland prairie Schizachyrium scoparium-Nassella leucotricha
Fayette prairie S. s.-Buchloe dactyloides
little bluestem-grama prairie S. s.-Bouteloua spp. 115]
redwood Sequoia sempervirens 5-200 [6,48,147]
western redcedar-western hemlock Thuja plicata-Tsuga heterophylla > 200 [6]
eastern hemlock-yellow birch Tsuga canadensis-Betula alleghaniensis > 200 [158]
western hemlock-Sitka spruce T. heterophylla-Picea sitchensis > 200 
mountain hemlock* T. mertensiana 35 to > 200 [6]
elm-ash-cottonwood Ulmus-Fraxinus-Populus spp. 44,158]
*fire return interval varies widely; trends in variation are noted in the species summary


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Successional Status

More info on this topic.

More info for the terms: cover, eruption, succession, wildfire

Bull thistle is an early successional species that establishes well in open, disturbed sites, and is an important weed in clearcuts and conifer plantations in the western U.S. [128]. Examples where bull thistle is reported as an early successional component and sometimes dominant after timber harvest (with and without burning) include studies in California [95,97], Oregon [27,45,60,104], Idaho [57,72,141], Montana [4,5,137], and Michigan [29,85]. Bull thistle is 1 of several species of Asteraceae that often become prolific immediately after fire in southern Tasmania, Australia [10], and was a common component in study plots following wildfire and suppression efforts in Glacier National Park in the fall of 1988 [16]. Bull thistle was also among the pioneering species in primary successional habitats on Mount St. Helens following the eruption in 1980 [150]. It is a common component on repeatedly disturbed sites such as roadsides [114] and grazed pastures. In Australia bull thistle populations persisted for 4 years in grazed pasture but declined in ungrazed pasture, suggesting that grazing allowed bull thistle populations to thrive [49].

Populations of bull thistle tend to be short lived, establishing after disturbance, dominating for a few years, and then declining as other vegetation recovers [27,33,41,95,96,155,167]. Few bull thistle plants can be found in undisturbed clearcuts and plantations older than 8 years [128], although some plants may remain for longer periods. After clearcutting of subalpine fir in western Montana, bull thistle cover peaked after 3 years, was still present after 17 years, but was not present on undisturbed sites or 1-year-old cuts [92]. Bull thistle was present 7 to 16 years after clearcutting in grand fir in western Montana, but absent from adjacent uncut forest [2]. Bull thistle was the most frequent species observed 6 to 9 years after clearcutting in Sierra Nevada mixed conifer [1]. The  peak distribution of bull thistle in German old fields is 3 to 4 years following disturbance [80]. Specific patterns of succession are described for Douglas-fir and ponderosa pine forests in California and Oregon [98] and for burned Douglas-fir clearcuts in the Coast range of western Oregon, where bull thistle is the dominant species the 2nd year after clearcutting [131].

True biennials are uncommon or absent in late successional plant communities because they often need abundant light for establishment [50]. Doucet and Cavers [41] note that bull thistle is absent from densely shaded areas. A review by Klinkhamer and de Jong [80] indicates that bull thistle is almost absent if light is reduced to less than 40% of full sunlight. Bull thistle invasion is enhanced in pastures with decreased vegetative cover [49]. In a greenhouse experiment, bull thistle germination was not suppressed by sedge (Carex spp.) cover, but subsequent survival of seedlings was reduced and the percentage of seeds that germinated and survived decreased exponentially with increasing cover [121]. In Dutch coastal dunes, however, bull thistle was more restricted to shaded sites [34].


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Regeneration Processes

More info for the terms: bisexual, competition, cover, density, fresh, invasive species, litter, pappus, root crown

A detailed description of reproductive and vegetative biology of bull thistle in New Zealand is provided by Michaux [103].

Breeding system: Bull thistle reproduces and spreads entirely from seeds [80]. Bull thistle flowers are bisexual [80,122]. While there is some evidence of self-pollination, selfing may result only in hollow seeds; therefore, bull thistle may require cross-pollination to set fertile seed. Only those plants that flower during the main flowering period, or where plants are growing in sufficient density, will contribute substantially to the following generation [103]. Klinkhamer and de Jong [80] report that self-pollinated plants produce a smaller number of large seeds than do cross-pollinated individuals. A review by Forcella and Randall [50], however, indicates that heavy seeds may be produced through self-pollination, and that these seeds can establish at high rates and enable isolated plants to begin new populations.

Pollination: Bull thistle flowers produce abundant nectar [122] and require pollinators for effective pollination [103]. A wide variety of insects pollinate bull thistle [106]. Pollinators of bull thistle in New Zealand include honey bees, bumble bees, flower flies and various other adult Lepidoptera, Thysanoptera, and Hymenoptera [103].

Seed production: Bull thistle plants produce about 100 to 300 or more seeds per flowerhead under favorable conditions, and anywhere from 1 to over 400 flowerheads per plant [50,79,80,103,122]. Variability in production of seeds per flowerhead and flowerheads per plant yields a wide range in number of seeds produced per plant. Bull thistle seed production can also vary considerably among years and within populations [79]. Size of mature bull thistle plants, timing of flowering and environmental conditions can influence seed production.

The number of viable seeds produced by a bull thistle plant varies with its overall size [50,103], which is, in turn, influenced by competition, site conditions, and herbivory [50]. Seed production and seedling establishment are often enhanced under disturbed conditions, which create open, habitable sites for invasive species [15]. A comparison of bull thistle demography in grazed and ungrazed pastures in Australia found that plants produced nearly 3 times as much seed on average in heavily grazed pasture (33 flowerheads per plant and 198 seeds per flowerhead) compared to ungrazed pasture (19 flowerheads per plant and 149 seeds per flowerhead) when averaged over 3 years [49]. Bull thistle seed production on Dutch coastal dunes was much lower than that recorded in an experimental garden, and was positively correlated with July rainfall. Seed and stem predation contributed to losses of 95% to over 99% in seed production on coastal dunes [79,80].

Time of flowering also affects total seed production in bull thistle. Seed production is highest in flowerheads that bloom during the peak of flowering at a particular location. At this time, more flowers are available for cross-pollination, and pollinators are most active [49,103]. Forcella and Randall [50] suggest that a lack of sufficient photosynthate and nutrients during aging can decrease seed production substantially.

Seed dispersal: Bull thistle seeds are equipped with a feathery pappus that is suited to wind dispersal, although it is unclear how effective this dispersal mechanism is. Several researchers (e.g. [1,92,95,97,137,143,150]) cite instances where bull thistle established after disturbance, possibly from wind-dispersed seed, unless bull thistle plants established from seed carried by animals or human activities or from seed stored in soil (see "Seed banking" section below).

Michaux [103] notes that the pappus readily detaches from bull thistle seed at maturity, so a majority of seeds (91%) fall within a distance of 1.5 times the height of the parent plant. This explains the dense pattern of seedlings near the parent plant often observed in the field [103]. On coastal dunes in the Netherlands, seeds landing within 3, 7, and 106 feet (1, 2, and 32 m) of parent plants represented 50, 66, and 90% of those observed. The remaining 10% reached higher air levels and dispersed to unknown distances greater than 106 feet (32 m) [79]. Based on weight, size, shape, fall speed, and lateral movement of bull thistle achenes in still air, the estimated lateral dispersal distance in a 6-mile-per-hour (10 km/hour) breeze is 38 feet (11.6 m) [94]. These studies suggest that wind dispersal is an inefficient mechanism for the majority of bull thistle seed, even under ideal conditions. However, up to 10% of seeds produced may travel distances of more than 90 feet (27 m), even on days with little wind [122], thus providing opportunities for establishment of new populations.

Rapid migration of bull thistle across large geographical regions is probably the result of human activities including movement of livestock, vehicles, farm machines, and plant products (such as seed and hay) [15,50,103]. Reviews by Mitich [106] and Beck [15] also suggest that bull thistle seeds may be carried by water and animals.

Seed banking: Evidence for seed banking in bull thistle varies. Numerous examples of bull thistle establishment following disturbance suggest either long-distance seed dispersal or seed stored in the soil. Reviews by Doucet and Cavers [41], Michaux [103], and Forcella and Randall [50] indicate that bull thistle is characterized as having either a transient or a very small persistent seed bank. Doucet and Cavers [41] note that studies concluding that bull thistle has a short-lived seed bank (e.g. [79]) only consider seeds located on or near the soil surface, and that seeds buried at least 6 inches (15 cm) may have over 50% viability 3 years after burial. Bull thistle seeds at or near the soil surface either germinate or are destroyed by rodents, insects, or microbes [79]. Those buried at greater depths appear to experience an induced dormancy, and decay more slowly with increasing depth [38,80,103]. A seed bank at 6 inches (15 cm) or deeper will not maintain a bull thistle population from year to year, but it could provide seeds that would re-establish the population after major physical disturbance of the soil [41]. In noncultivated areas, however, bull thistle seeds are not usually buried to great depths.

To form a persistent seed bank, bull thistle seeds would have to exhibit some form of dormancy that would enable them to remain viable at or near the surface of the soil without germinating [41]. Klinkhamer and de Jong [80] state that maintaining bull thistle seeds in an imbibed state in darkness induces dormancy. This suggests that in densely vegetated habitats it is possible that bull thistle seeds may become dormant and remain viable without germinating. 

Bull thistle seeds from 2 populations in Ontario established a persistent seed bank when buried 6 inches (15 cm). After storage on the soil surface or at 1-inch (3 cm) depth, bull thistle seeds in sandy soil on an open site did not persist beyond 6 months. In contrast, 2 to 14% of bull thistle seeds stored in shaded conditions in a clay loam soil maintained viability for 30 months at the surface and at 1 inch below the surface, with no decline in the number of viable seeds over time, suggesting an induced dormancy [41]. Induced dormancy might also explain why, although bull thistle was not present in the vegetation of 40- to 60-year-old, closed canopy forest understories in low-elevation forest on the Olympic Peninsula, it germinated from both litter and soil samples when placed in a greenhouse. This result suggests that bull thistle will establish on these sites following overstory removal [61].

Evidence provided by Doucet and Cavers [41,42], and by greenhouse studies in which bull thistle emerged from litter and soil samples from forested sites with little to no bull thistle cover [81,118,146], supports the possibility of a small persistent seed bank in bull thistle. There are also numerous examples of bull thistle's early seral dominance after disturbances such as harvesting [4,5,27,29,57,60,72,113,128,131], burning [10,16], or both [4,5,45,85,104,141], although it is not clear from these studies whether bull thistle established from buried seed or from seed dispersed from an off-site source.

Germination: Bull thistle seed viability is generally high, and may vary between 60 and 90% [80,103] or more [122]. Reviews by Michaux [103] and Klinkhamer and de Jong [80] indicate that bull thistle seeds have little innate dormancy and germinate rapidly after imbibition, while a review by Beck [15] indicates that 60 to 75% of bull thistle seeds may be dormant at maturity, but up to 90% may germinate within a year. A review by Forcella and Randall [50] indicates that the timing of emergence of bull thistle seedlings results from the interaction of dormancy mechanisms, soil temperature, and rainfall patterns and will, therefore, vary by site and regional characteristics. Cavers and others [24] discuss the pattern of germination in bull thistle over time. Germination of bull thistle seeds is affected by moisture, light availability, gap size, and temperature.

Germination of bull thistle seeds typically occurs in spring or fall in response to adequate soil moisture [49,103,106,122]. Bull thistle seed germination is less sensitive to low water potential than that of several other thistle species. The relative germination of bull thistle seeds decreased linearly from 100% at 0 MPa to 10% at -0.75 MPa [58]. In Dutch sand dunes the number of emerging seedlings in spring was related to both soil moisture and soil nitrate levels, implying that, combined with temperature, these 2 factors help to regulate seed germination [33]. Downs and Cavers [43] found that germination rate in bull thistle was reduced after exposure to 2 or more cycles of wetting and drying, and that total percent germination was reduced after exposure to 8 cycles of wetting and drying. This evidence supports the idea that bull thistle seeds may acquire an induced dormancy through exposure to cycles of wetting and drying such as can be experienced in the uppermost layers of soil. 

Germination rate of bull thistle seeds tends to decrease as light decreases [80,103,118]. Doucet and Cavers [42] report that fresh bull thistle seeds are capable of germinating in either alternating light and dark or constant dark conditions under favorable diurnal temperatures of 77/50 degrees Fahrenheit (25/10 °C). In a laboratory study, seeds were stored over winter at 41 degrees Fahrenheit (5 °C) in either alternating light and dark, or in constant darkness. Seeds treated with alternating light and dark did not require light for germination when placed under optimal temperatures, whereas seeds treated with constant darkness did require additional light for germination. In the field, seeds that do not germinate in the fall and then spend the winter in darkness (e.g. in deep shade, under leaves, or buried by ants, earthworms or other animals) can acquire this induced dormancy and be prevented from germinating. Such seeds have the potential of forming a persistent seed bank [41,42]. Light requirement for germination of bull thistle seeds is also evidenced by higher germination rates in large (4-8 inches (10-20 cm)) gaps than in smaller gaps (Silvertown and Smith 1989, as cited by [80]). Bull thistle is dependent on canopy gaps for seedling emergence and establishment [20].

Bull thistle seeds germinate well over a wide range of temperatures [50]. Germination of bull thistle seeds is reduced if the temperature is outside the range of 50 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit (10-30 °C). Fresh seeds have higher optimum temperature for germination than stored seeds [80,103].

Seedling establishment/growth: Bull thistle seedling establishment is favored by soil disturbance and seedling growth is favored by vegetation disturbance. The absolute growth of bull thistle seedlings is very low for 2 months after sowing, even under ideal conditions [50]. Transition from seedlings to rosettes is when the greatest attrition in bull thistle populations typically occurs [49,80,121]. Bull thistle seedlings have higher survival rates under high nutrient conditions [11,49].

Bull thistle establishes better in grazed versus ungrazed pasture. About 15% and 10% of seeds from grazed and ungrazed pastures, respectively, produced seedlings, and the average survival of seedlings in grazed and ungrazed pastures was 1% and 0.2% respectively. Fifty percent of rosettes in both pasture types survived and grew into adults [49]. An annual census of 2 bull thistle-infested meadows in Yosemite National Park found that seedlings accounted for about 85% of deaths observed, 13% of mortality was rosettes, and less than 2% of mortality was due to individuals that died after flowering [121]. On Dutch coastal dunes, bull thistle seedling mortality is related to soil moisture content and tends to be high, with only 23 to 47% of seedlings surviving from spring to autumn. Yearly death of rosettes varies between 10 and 69%, with the chance of dying inversely related to rosette size [80]. Bull thistle rosettes that are top-killed under dry or cold stress in the 1st season can grow again from the root crown during late winter or spring [106].


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Growth Form (according to Raunkiær Life-form classification)

More info on this topic.

More info for the terms: hemicryptophyte, therophyte



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Life Form

More info for the term: forb



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Broad-scale Impacts of Fire

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Molecular Biology and Genetics

Molecular Biology

Barcode data: Cirsium vulgare

The following is a representative barcode sequence, the centroid of all available sequences for this species.

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Statistics of barcoding coverage: Cirsium vulgare

Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLDS) Stats
Public Records: 9
Specimens with Barcodes: 35
Species With Barcodes: 1
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Conservation Status


Widespread and very common (3). Listed as a noxious weed under the Weeds Act of 1959 (4).
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Comments: A difficult-to-control exotic in the US.

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This species is not threatened.
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Biological Research Needs: Methods of control/eradication, but not a priority.

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Impacts and Control

More info for the terms: competition, cover, density, fire management, interference, invasive species, litter, natural, restoration, root crown, succession, tree

Impacts: Bull thistle is a problem in pastures because it competes with and decreases desirable forage and has no significant nutritive value for livestock [106]. Sharp spines deter livestock, and presumably wildlife, from grazing. One adult bull thistle plant per square yard decreased spring or summer live weight gains of sheep by about 3.8 lb (1.7 kg) per animal in New Zealand pastures [64]. Bull thistle is a range weed in 20 countries and is more frequent in grazed than in ungrazed pastures. It is regarded as a serious pest in protected areas and parks such as Yosemite, Yellowstone, Teton and Glacier National Parks [50]. Bull thistle may also interfere with growth of Douglas-fir transplants in the Oregon Coast Range as indicated by results presented by Gourley and others [55], where tree growth was improved by control of various weeds, including but not limited to bull thistle.

Bull thistle often dominates recently clearcut forest areas in the Sierra Nevada of California, and infestations may limit growth of replanted tree seedlings. Work in a replanted Sierra clearcut forest indicated that stem growth of ponderosa pine saplings was negatively correlated with density of thistles within about 7 feet (2 m) of pines [123]. Bull thistle also colonizes and maintains high population densities for up to 6 years in clearcuts in redwood and mixed evergreen forests in northwestern California [122].  

Control: Bull thistle should be accurately identified before attempting any control measures, since several native species of thistles have a similar appearance. See Klinkhamer and de Jong [80] and General Botanical Characteristics for information on proper identification.

The key to successful management of bull thistle is to prevent seed production. Combining control methods into an integrated management system will result in the best long-term population decreases. Control data suggest that viable seed production by biennial thistles must be eliminated to achieve long-term population decreases, although zero seed production may not be a realistic goal. The transition from seedling to rosette in bull thistle may be the most precarious stage in its life cycle. Seedling and rosette growth stages are the most logical to target for control efforts in biennial thistles. 

Desirable plant competition to deter establishment of bull thistle seedlings is a critical part of any biennial thistle management strategy. Recovery of infested areas should not be considered complete until a diverse population of  desirable plants has replaced invasive biennial thistles, and bull thistles are a minor to nonexistent component of the plant community. Always monitor and evaluate weed management programs to determine whether and when to repeat and/or modify control treatments [15].

Prevention: Prevention is the most effective method for managing invasive species, including bull thistle [15,139]. Preventing or dramatically reducing seed production will help decrease the spread of infestations. This is accomplished by cleaning mowers, vehicles, and tillage equipment after operation in an infested area. When seeding is necessary, use clean, certified weed-free seed and mulch to ensure that bull thistle or other weeds are not being sown. Preventing the establishment of weeds in natural areas is achieved by maintaining healthy natural communities and by conducting aggressive monitoring several times each year. Monitoring efforts are best concentrated on the most disturbed areas in a site, particularly along roadsides, parking lots, fencelines, and waterways. When an infestation is found, the location can be recorded and the surrounding area surveyed to determine the size and extent of the infestation, so these sites can be revisited on follow-up surveys. For more on monitoring see Johnson [74]. Place a priority on controlling small infestations so they do not expand [15,74].

Good grazing management will stimulate grass growth and keep pastures and rangelands healthy. Healthy pastures and rangeland may be more resistant to biennial thistle invasion. Bare spots caused by overgrazing are prime habitable sites for biennial thistles. In many instances, grazing lands will have to be rested from grazing for grasses to recover. This should be coupled with precipitation cycles, so adequate soil moisture will be available to stimulate grass growth. Grazed pastures that are managed carefully may enhance grass competition and deter thistle survival from seedlings to rosettes [15].

Weed prevention and control can be incorporated into all types of management plans, including logging and site preparation, management of grazing allotments, recreation management, research projects, road building and maintenance, and fire management [152]. See the "Guide to noxious weed prevention practices" [152] for specific guidelines in preventing the spread of weed seeds and propagules under different management conditions.

Integrated management: The goal of any management plan should be not only controlling invasive plants, but also improving the affected community, maximizing forage quality and quantity and/or preserving ecosystem integrity, and preventing reinvasion or invasion by other invasive species, in a way that is complementary to the ecology and economics of the site [40,73]. Effective long-term control requires that invasive plants be removed and replaced by more desirable and weed-resistant plant communities [73]. Once the desired plant community has been determined, an integrated weed management strategy can be developed to direct succession toward that plant community by identifying key mechanisms and processes directing plant community dynamics (site availability, species availability, and species performance) and predicting plant community response to control measures [138]. This requires a long-term integrated management plan [15].

Most often, a single method is not effective for controlling an invasive plant, and many possible combinations of methods can achieve the desired objectives. Methods selected for removal or control of bull thistle on a specific site will be determined by land use objectives, desired plant community, extent and nature of the infestation(s), environmental factors (nontarget vegetation, soil types, climatic conditions, important water resources), economics, and effectiveness and limitations of available control techniques [126]. Killing thistles and decreasing weed populations must be followed by the establishment of desirable vegetation in the newly opened niches; herbicide applications in spring followed by dormant seeding of competitive perennial grasses in the fall is an example of an effective management system for biennial thistles in the western U.S. Similarly, integrating herbicides and biological control agents is likely to be more effective than insects alone [15] (see "Biological control" below, for more information). For information on integrated weed management without herbicides, see the Bio-Integral Resource Center (BIRC) website.

Some examples of combined approaches and considerations for managing bull thistle infestations are presented within the following sections. Managers are encouraged to use combinations of control techniques in a manner that is appropriate to the site objectives, desired plant community, available resources, and timing of applications.

Physical/mechanical: Any mechanical or physical method that severs the root below the soil surface will kill bull thistle plants. However, it is essential to re-vegetate the site with desirable plants to compete with bull thistle that may reinvade from seeds left in the soil. Tillage, hoeing, and hand pulling may provide effective control, providing these operations are done before the reproductive growth stages to prevent seed production. Mowing alone is not an effective control measure for biennial thistles, because some seed will still be produced. Mechanical methods may not be practical on rangeland and natural areas, but could be useful in improved pastures or roadsides [15]. The long duration of flowering in bull thistle increases the importance of timely control operations and may make repeated treatments necessary [49,122].

A single mowing will not control a bull or musk thistle infestation, because infestations often consist of plants of various ages, and stands therefore have nonuniform development and flowering. Bull thistle plants mowed just before seed dispersal do not produce seed or recover well [50,80,122]. If mowed too early, bull thistle plants resprout and flower. About 4% of bull thistles cut 2 to 4 inches (5-10 cm) above the soil surface a month before flowering resprout [121,122].

Bull thistle will not withstand cultivation; however, tillage is not appropriate in wildlands and rangelands since it can damage important desirable species, increase erosion, alter soil structure, and expose the soil for rapid reinfestation by bull thistle and other invasive species [88]. Slicing off the root crown of bull thistle plants is time consuming, but very effective [129]. At Yosemite National Park, less than 5% of adult bull thistles cut at the soil surface resprouted, while over 80% of adult bull thistles in control plots survived and flowered [120,121]. Of the bull thistle plants that resprouted, mean height and number of inflorescences were lower (25 inches or 63 cm and 3.7 flowerheads ) than for adults in control plots (33 inches or 85 cm and 15.8 flowerheads) [121,122].  Plants that were cut at the root crown a few days after their 1st flowers appeared and then laid on the ground produced abundant viable seed, so removing cut stems from areas being cleared may be important [50,122].

Even if bull thistle plants resprout after mechanical control, populations may be reduced by limiting seed production [122]. Removal of adult bull thistle plants must be repeated annually for 4 years or more, since some plants will stay in the rosette form for up to 5 years [121]. Mechanical control may be labor intensive; however, sometimes volunteer groups are available. The Salmon River Restoration Council (SRRC) provides an example of watershed-scale weed control using primarily mechanical control methods.

Fire: See Fire Management Considerations.

Biological: Biological control of invasive species has a long history, and there are many important considerations to be made before the implementation of a biological control program. The reader is referred to other sources [126,164] and the Weed Control Methods Handbook [151] for background information on biological control. Additionally, Cornell University, Texas A & M University, and NAPIS websites offer information on biological control.

In its native range, number of viable seeds produced by bull thistle plants can be greatly reduced by insects feeding on the stem, flowerheads, or seeds [80]. Several agents have been considered and tested for bull thistle control, and those in the following table have been introduced in North America:

Biological control agent Mode of action Areas established References
thistle head weevil (Rhinocyllus conicus) larvae eat seed-producing tissue well established in most northwestern and northern plains states; GA, TN, TX, VA [15,36,63,77,125,127]
thistle crown weevil (Trichosirocalus horridus) larvae feed on the growing points of thistle rosettes and developing shoots CO, KS, MO, MT, OR, VA, WA, WY [15,125]
bull thistle gall fly (Urophora stylata) larvae feed within seed producing tissues of developing seedheads CO, MD, OR, WA, BC, NS, PQ [15,26]

Rhinocyllus conicus was introduced from Europe to Montana and Virginia in 1969 to control musk thistle, but it also uses bull thistle. Rhinocyllus conicus will use Carduus, Cirsium, Silybum, and Onopordum genera as hosts but prefers the musk thistle group [127]. In areas where the plant and insect life cycles are synchronized, R. conicus is extremely effective in reducing seed production in musk thistle [125]. It is unclear if it is as effective on bull thistle. Several strains of R. conicus have been identified and they vary in their utilization of various thistle species. At least 1 of these strains does attack some native Cirsium species [89,125], and reviews by Randall [122], Beck [15] and Wilson and McCaffrey [164] indicate that it is known to attack native and rare thistles. Therefore, before releasing insects in a new area containing native Cirsium species, investigate whether any of the local species may be attacked [125]. A detailed discussion of the biology of R. conicus is given by Harris and Shorthouse [63].

Urophora stylata feeds on developing seeds in bull thistle flowerheads and decreases seed production up to 60% [26]. Trichosirocalus horridus was introduced to the U.S. in 1974. This weevil uses thistles of the subtribe Carduinae, including bull thistle, musk thistle, plumeless thistle (Carduus acanthoides), Italian thistle (C. pycnocephalus), Canada thistle, and Scotch thistle. Reports of suppression vary from slight to great. Trichosirocalus horridus is more effective when used in conjunction with R. conicus [125]. In areas of Missouri where R. conicus and T. horridus have been present for over 15 years, an 80 to 90% reduction in thistle populations has occurred [142].

Chemical: Herbicides are effective in gaining initial control of a new invasion or a severe infestation, but are rarely a complete or long-term solution to weed management [23]. Herbicides are more effective on large infestations when incorporated into long-term management plans that include replacement of weeds with desirable species, careful land use management, and prevention of new infestations. Control with herbicides is temporary, as it does not change conditions that allow infestations to occur [169]. See the Weed Control Methods Handbook for considerations on the use of herbicides in natural areas and detailed information on specific chemicals. 

Chemical control of bull thistle is reviewed by Beck [15], Forcella and Randall [50], and Randall [122]. Clopyralid, dicamba, MCPA, picloram, 2,4-D, metsulfuron, and chlorsulfuron will all kill bull and musk thistles. Timing of application is important. Autumn is a good time to control biennial thistles with herbicides because all live plants will be seedlings or rosettes, and plants are easiest to control in the seedling and rosette stages. Plants are, however, more difficult to locate at this stage, and cold weather may decrease the effectiveness of some chemicals. Herbicide choice and rates are influenced by growth stage, stand density, and environmental conditions (e.g. drought or cold temperatures). Check with state or county weed specialists for appropriate local use rates and timing. Bull thistle is less aggressive and easier to control than other biennial thistles [14].

In pastures and range containing appreciable quantities of broadleaf forage species, application of any of the herbicides listed above may damage valuable plants and reduce forage production and livestock weight gain as much as that caused by thistle interference [64], so it is important to prevent these and other non-target effects of chemical control.

Cultural: Bull thistle germination and establishment is favored in open areas and by disturbance [15]. No matter what method is used to kill weeds, reestablishment of competitive, desirable plant cover is imperative for long-term control. Fertilization and reseeding with competitive, adapted species is often necessary in areas without a residual understory of desirable plants [126]. 

Revegetation with aggressive desirable species has been shown to inhibit reinvasion of bull thistle, especially with the help of effective biological control agents and carefully prescribed grazing practices. Promoting desirable competitors is important both after weed control and before weed establishment. Choice of species to sow will depend upon climate, location, and management objectives. The Natural Resource Conservation Service and land grant universities are good sources of information about appropriate perennial grass species for a particular locale. Management that allows grasses to grow taller in spring to shade bull thistle seedlings may decrease seedling establishment and growth [15]. 

At Thousand Springs Preserve in Idaho, bull thistle invades native grasslands. Where healthy native grasses have re-established, they outcompete bull thistle and their litter prevents bull thistle seeds from reaching the ground and germinating [129]. On a reclaimed parking lot in Illinois that was planted by broadcast seeding and seedling transplants, then burned 5 years later and on an annual basis thereafter, bull thistle decreased over time and was virtually absent by year 7 [78].


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Not relevant.
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Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems



This thistle usually grows in full sun under moist to dry conditions. It prefers a fertile soil that consists of loam, clay loam, or that is slightly stony. Occasionally the foliage is affected by mildew during the summer or fall. Individual plants can produce a great abundance of seed, which have a high germination and survival rate. Thus, this plant can be quite aggressive. Because the seeds remain viable for only 1-2 years, one control strategy consists of destroying individual plants before they reach the flowering stage. It is possible for a plant to reestablish itself if a portion of the taproot remains in the ground.
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Importance to Livestock and Wildlife

More info for the terms: competition, cover

Bull thistle is usually avoided by grazing animals because of its spines, and thus its proliferation is encouraged by heavy gazing on rangeland and in pastures. Additionally, rosettes that were damaged during heavy grazing on a pasture in New Zealand were stimulated by the damage to regrow [103]. Domestic goats and sheep eat bull thistle seedlings [50,80]. Pasture grazing by domestic sheep can reduce competition from neighboring plants and increase growth, flowering, and seed production, and promote survival of bull thistle seedlings [49]. This may be an issue of timing: spring grazing may encourage bull thistle, while later in the season, sheep may eat bull thistle seedlings or small rosettes [50,80]. 

Studies in the Netherlands indicate that rabbits eat bull thistle leaves, especially in winter and early spring. The flowering stem may be attacked by a variety of herbivores, which can result in a reduced seed output. If the main stem is severed or damaged by herbivores, secondary flowering stems can form. Recovery of bull thistle after herbivore damage is dependent on moisture availability. Bull thistle seeds are eaten by mice and voles. Birds sometimes eat seeds in the Dutch coastal dune area [80]. Goldfinches eat bull thistle seeds and use the thistledown to build their nests [106]. Bull thistle is included in a list of known grizzly bear food plants [32]. Bull thistle is eaten by Mazama pocket gophers in south-central Oregon [22], and high bull thistle densities were observed in Yosemite National Park in sites of intense pocket gopher digging. Pocket gophers consume taproots from below, and their digging provides sites for further thistle establishment, so that they are effectively "farming" thistles [121]. Bull thistle flower nectar is a favorite of bees and butterflies [84].

Palatability/nutritional value: No information

Cover value: No information


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Other uses and values

The thistles have long been associated with humans [106]. "Thistles have been used medicinally as well as for food. However, they are also notoriously associated with unkempt agricultural land. While this may be true of invasive thistles that are not native to North America, the vast majority of native thistles fill specific ecological niches and have traits useful to humans" [15]. The young stems and roots of bull thistle are edible [46]. Native North Americans used the roots and young leaves and newly bolted stems of Cirsium species for food. Cirsium roots have been sold commercially for use as rabbit bait in Australia [106]. In a review by Klinkhamer and de Jong [80], it is suggested that bull thistle may be easily processed for rubber using standard equipment.


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Cirsium vulgare

Cirsium vulgare (spear thistle) is a species of the genus Cirsium, native throughout most of Europe (north to 66°N, locally 68°N), western Asia (east to the Yenisei Valley), and northwestern Africa (Atlas Mountains).[1][2][3] It is also naturalised in North America and Australia and is as an invasive weed in some areas. It is the national flower of Scotland.



It is a tall biennial or short-lived monocarpic thistle, forming a rosette of leaves and a taproot up to 70 cm long in the first year, and a flowering stem 1–1.5 m tall in the second (rarely third or fourth) year. The stem is winged, with numerous longitudinal spine-tipped wings along its full length. The leaves are stoutly spined, grey-green, deeply lobed; the basal leaves up to 15–25 cm long, with smaller leaves on the upper part of the flower stem; the leaf lobes are spear-shaped (from which the English name derives). The inflorescence is 2.5–5 cm diameter, pink-purple, with all the florets of similar form (no division into disc and ray florets). The seeds are 5 mm long, with a downy pappus, which assists in wind dispersal. As in other species of Cirsium (but unlike species in the related genus Carduus), the pappus hairs are feathery with fine side hairs.[1][4][5]


C. vulgare being pollinated by a carpenter bee in Pennsylvania, where it is naturalised and considered a noxious weed

Spear thistle is often a ruderal species, colonising bare disturbed ground, but also persists well on heavily grazed land as it is unpalatable to most grazing animals.[5] The flowers are a rich nectar source used by numerous pollinating insects, including honey bees, wool-carder bees, and many butterflies.[6] The seeds are eaten by goldfinches, linnets and greenfinches.[7] The seeds are dispersed by wind, mud, water, and possibly also by ants; they do not show significant long-term dormancy, most germinating soon after dispersal and only a few lasting up to four years in the soil seed bank.[8] Seed is also often spread by human activity such as hay bales.[5]

Cirsium vulgare as a weed[edit]

C. vulgare, growing on the bank of the Murrumbidgee River in Wagga Wagga, Australia

Spear thistle is designated an "injurious weed" under the UK Weeds Act 1959,[9] and a noxious weed in Australia[8][10][11] and in nine US states.[12] Spread is only by seed, not by root fragments as in the related creeping thistle C. arvense. It is best cleared from land by hoeing and deep cutting of the taproot before seeds mature; regular cultivation also prevents its establishment.[5]

Synonymy and other names[edit]

Synonyms include Carduus vulgaris Savi (basionym), Carduus lanceolatus L., Cirsium lanceolatum (L.) Scop. (non Hill), Cirsium balearicum Willk., Cirsium linkii Nyman, Cnicus lanceolatus (L.) Willd., Cirsium microcephalum sensu Lange, non Moris, Cirsium crinitum Boiss. ex DC., and Cirsium strigosum (Hoffmanns. & Link) Cout.[2] Other English names include bull thistle,[5][13] Scots, Scottish, or Scotch thistle, and common thistle.[13]


The stems can be peeled and then steamed or boiled. The tap roots can be eaten raw or cooked, but only on young thistles that have not flowered yet.[14]


  1. ^ a b Interactive Flora of NW Europe: Cirsium vulgare
  2. ^ a b Flora Europaea: Cirsium vulgare
  3. ^ Den Virtuella Floran: Cirsium vulgare (in Swedish, with maps)
  4. ^ Blamey, M. & Grey-Wilson, C. (1989). Flora of Britain and Northern Europe. ISBN 0-340-40170-2
  5. ^ a b c d e Bond, W., Davies, G., & Turner, R. J. (2007). The biology and non-chemical control Spear Thistle (Cirsium vulgare). 6pp. HDRA the organic organisation. Fulltext
  6. ^ "Cirsium vulgare (Savi) Ten.". Department of Environment and Conservation. Government of Western Australia. Retrieved 7 July 2011. 
  7. ^ "Spear thistle - Cirsium vulgare". Natural England. The Plant Press. Retrieved 7 July 2011. 
  8. ^ a b "Spear thistle". Weed Australia. Australian Weeds Committee National Initiative. Retrieved 7 July 2011. 
  9. ^ Defra, UK - Farming - Wildlife and plants Ragwort and injurious weeds
  10. ^ "Spear Thistle". Department of Primary Industries. Victorian Government. Retrieved 7 July 2011. 
  11. ^ "Declared Plant Policy". Primary Industries and Resources SA. Government of South Australia. Retrieved 7 July 2011. 
  12. ^ "USDA PLANTS Profile for Cirsium vulgare". USDA Plant Database. USDA. Retrieved 2008-07-15. 
  13. ^ a b United States Department of Agriculture: Taxonomy for Plants
  14. ^ "Cirsium". Survival and Self Sufficiency. Retrieved 9 September 2011. 
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Source: Wikipedia


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Names and Taxonomy


The currently accepted scientific name of bull thistle is Cirsium vulgare
(Savi) Tenore (Asteraceae)

Bull thistle exhibits variation in several morphological characteristics that
have been described as subspecies by some authors; however, the Flora Europaea
does not recognize these taxa because they lack sufficient morphological or
geographical delimitation [50]. Several hybrids of bull
thistle have been described in Europe, and 1 suggested in California. See
reviews by Klinkhamer and deJong [80] and Forcella and Randall [50] for more


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Common Names

bull thistle

spear thistle


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