Picking Thistles


musk thistle

Musk Thistle

You've probably seen musk thistles growing along highways and back roads. From a distance, they are kind of pretty when they bloom with their fluffy purple flowers. Up close, though, you can see the spiny stem and leaves. You may ask yourself, "Why would anyone want to pick thistles?" And you'd be right. Their thorny characteristics would look out of place in a bouquet and make them unpalatable in pastures. Bison, who are not generally picky eaters, give them a wide berth.

It's not so much wanting to pick them, it's needing to pick them. Musk thistles (carduus nutans) are a noxious weed in Kansas. Landowners are required by law to get rid of them. That's easier said than done. Weed sprays do a pretty good job of holding them back over broad areas. But the plants have a knack for growing in out-of-the-way places that are hard to get to with a sprayer.

That's where picking comes in. If you can get to them right after a heavy rain when the ground is soft, you can pull them, which is the best way to get rid of the plant. But in our area of Kansas, if you haven't had rain in a while, the ground is so hard, you can't pull weeds out of it. Then, you have dig them, cutting the roots below the surface.

The first year I picked thistles, I just pulled or dug the plants out of the ground and heaped them in the back of the Ranger to haul to the burn pile. This worked somewhat, but the seeds on the flowers blew off and we had quite a patch of thistles around our burn pile and yard. Then, I hit on the idea of picking the flower/seed heads off, putting them in a bag to burn in our burn barrel, and hauling the stems to the burn pile if they were in the hay field or leaving them to deteriorate back into the earth if they were in the pasture. This has been a more-effective method.

We've also had more moisture the past couple of years, which inhibits their growth. They like dry soils and sun. They will grow every chance they get, though, so we must be ever-vigilant.