European marsh thistle flower and stem

European marsh thistle flower and stem

Image credit: Tessa Tormoen

European Marsh Thistle

Cirsium palustre


European marsh thistle, a terrestrial and wetland herbaceous biennial in the Asteraceae family, is an invasive plant that prefers moist soils. European marsh thistle frequently invades fens, wetlands, and disturbed sites such as roadside ditches. Identifying features include:

  • typically grows 2-7 feet tall
  • leaves are alternate with deeply pinnate segments and spiny teeth along leaf margins
  • flowers are purple, disk-shaped, and covered in spines
  • often found with multiple flowers per stem
  • wind dispersed seeds carried by clusters of cotton-like fuzz

Note: European marsh thistle is distinguished from Canada thistle by having spines that cover the stem, leaves, and flowers.

For more information visit Midwest Invasive Species Information Network (MISIN).

European marsh thistle foliage

Leaf foliage of European marsh thistle

Image credit: Sigrid Resh

European marsh thistle stem

The spiny stem of a European marsh thistle

Image credit: Sigrid Resh 

European marsh thistle flower cluster

Cluster of European marsh thistle flowers 

Image credit: Tessa Tormoen

European marsh thistle leaves and stem

Close up of the leaves and stem of a European marsh thistle

Image credit: Sigrid Resh

KISMA Management Practices

European marsh thistle can colonize areas quite aggressively and can be difficult to remove from areas due to the wet soils they prefer. Current management practices: 

  1. annually hand pull or dig around rosettes
  2. if thistle has bloomed, clip off flowers, buds, and fruiting bodies to prevent seed production
  3. mow population before flower buds open when possible
  4. be sure to bag and dispose of all flower, bud, and fruiting body clippings in a landfill

Note: It is important to pull second growth plants to eventually exhaust the seed source and deplete populations. It is also important to bag flower clippings to prevent further seed production and spread.

Native Alternatives

Species such as native swamp thistle (Cirsium muticum), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), and joe-pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum), are all great alternatives to European marsh thistle. These species are tall herbaceous perennial flowers that are extremely similar to European marsh thistle. All of these would be great choices for replanting in areas where European marsh thistle has been removed.