Scotch Thistle

Scotch Thistle

Onopordum acanthium

Status in Squamish:


Status in Whistler:


Status in Pemberton:

Vectors of Spread:

Cotton Thistle, Woolly Thistle, and Winged Thistle.

ID Characteristics

General: Scotch Thistle is considered a biennial herb, but it can behave like an annual or a short-lived perennial depending on the conditions. It emerges as a rosette, before bolting and producing seeds in a subsequent season. Scotch Thistle plants die after flowering.

Flowers: Are vibrant purple and grow at the end of leafy stalks, as a single flower or a cluster of flowers. Flowers are globe-shaped and 2 – 8 cm in diameter.

Stem: Are erect and branched. Scotch Thistle stems have broad, spiny wings, and woolly hairs. The plant is very tall, up to 2 – 3 m and 1.8 m wide.

Leaves: Are alternate, very large and irregularly lobed, with sharp yellow spikes. Rosette leaves will grow to be 60 cm long and 30 cm wide. Both sides of the leaves are covered in a thick mat of cotton-like or woolly hairs, giving the leaves a grey-green appearance.

Fruit: Are brown to greyish black and wrinkled, slender, and have a pappus (cluster of hairs).

Roots: Are fibrous.

Similar Species
  • Invasive:
Bull Thistle

Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare): Scotch Thistle has larger, yet fewer flower heads than Bull Thistle, and is woolly all over.







Milk Thistle (J. Leekie)

Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum) has distinctive marbling patterns on its leaves.


Please report any sighting of Scotch Thistle by clicking here.

Habitat and Origin

Scotch Thistle is native to Europe and Asia. It was introduced to North America during the 19th century as a garden ornamental. It is still occasionally grown as a garden curiosity due to its large size, unusual foliage, and large flowers.

While Scotch Thistle is drought tolerant, it tends to prefer moist soils. It is typically found along roadsides and in disturbed areas, as well as in irrigation ditches, riverbanks, pasturelands, and construction sites.

Current Distribution

Propagation & Vectors of Spread

Scotch Thistle reproduces by seed. Each plant can produce 8,400 – 40, 000 seeds which can remain viable for upwards of 4 decades.

Scotch Thistle seeds are spread in the wind, but also in hay and water, as well as by attaching to clothing, wildlife, livestock, or the undercarriage of vehicles. Lastly, the plant is sometimes still grown as a garden ornamental, so it can be spread through the horticulture trade.

Ecological & Economic Impacts


  • Outcompetes native species.
  • Dense stands become impassable and severely limit animals’ access to grazing land and water.
  • If eaten, the spines can cause injury to the animal, particularly around the mouth.


  • Reduces forage production and virtually prohibits land utilization for livestock.
  • Forms impenetrable thickets for ranchers, cattle, and recreationists.
What Can I Do?

Scotch Thistle is currently found throughout the Sea to Sky Corridor, so the best approach to controlling its spread is by PREVENTION.


Learn to identify Scotch Thistle: use the images presented in this profile page to learn how to identify Scotch Thistle.

What to do if you spot it: You can report any Scotch Thistle sighting by clicking here.



  • Regularly monitor properties for weed infestations.
  • Ensure soil and gravel are uncontaminated before transport.
  • Check wildflower mixes to ensure that they do not contain Scotch Thistle.
  • Remove plant material from any equipment, vehicles, or clothing used in infested areas and wash equipment and vehicles at designated cleaning sites before leaving such areas.
  • Ensure that plants are disposed of in a garbage bag if found in floral arrangements to prevent seeds from spreading.



  • Plant Scotch Thistle in a garden, no matter how well-contained its enclosure may seem.
  • Move soil that has been contaminated with Scotch Thistle.
  • Compost invasive plant material.




  • Hand-pull small infestations, but ensure you are wearing appropriate protection (heavy gloves, a long-sleeved shirt and pants, and eyewear) to protect yourself from the plant’s spines.
  • Since plants can regrow from severed roots, and cut stems may still produce viable seeds, mowing or hand-pulling is recommended in combination with chemical control.
  • Moreover, ensure mechanical control is performed before the plant goes to seed, to avoid further spread.


  • Dicamba, 2,4-D, aminopyralid, clopyralid, metsulfuron, and glyphosate are effective on Scotch Thistle.
  • Picloram has also proven effective, however, it is not suitable for wet, coastal soils.
  • Herbicides should be applied in the spring before the plant bolts, or in the autumn to rosettes.
  • We recommend that any herbicide application is carried out by a person holding a valid BC Pesticide Applicator Certificate. Before selecting and applying herbicides, you must review and follow herbicide labels and application rates; municipal, regional, provincial and federal laws and regulations; species-specific treatment recommendations, and site-specific goals and objectives.


There is no biocontrol agent available for Scotch Thistle.