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Rhonda Ferree's ILRiverHort

Rhonda Ferree's Horticulture Blog
Musk thistle
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Good and Bad Thistles

Yesterday while at Wildlife Prairie Park in Peoria for Master Naturalist training I saw a really beautiful bull thistle plant. There are many different types of thistle. Two that you'll commonly see growing in central Illinois are the bull and musk thistle.

They are also both quite pretty. They have large 1-2" seed head with bright purple tufts of petals. The plants are both quite prickly, though the bull thistle is a bit more hairy than musk thistle. These flowers are an important food crop for many birds. I enjoy watching song birds feed on the seed heads. It is always amazing to me that the little bird can extract the small seeds while they all sway to and fro. Additionally, many insects feed on the pollen of this plant.

Bull and musk thistle have many similarities. They are both biennial plants, which means that they have a two year life cycle. They grow as a low rosette of only leaves the first year. The second year they bolt up a tall flower head and then die once it produces seed.

The plants grow only from seed and not from other plant or root parts. But, this is where the real difference between the musk and bull thistle becomes evident. Musk thistle has prolific seed production and can quickly take over an area. They extremely difficult to manage once they come into an area. Because of this musk thistle is on the noxious weed list in Illinois. This law states that you must eradicate all of these weeds growing on land you own or manage. Bull thistle, on the other hand, does not take over once established.

Take a minute to look closely at thistles you see along roadsides, in pastures, or other natural areas. Instead of seeing a prickly plant I hope you'll see a pretty flower instead.

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