Thistle: creeping

Creeping thistle can quickly spread in grassland areas and borders. Once established, it can be difficult to eradicate permanently. You may find that repeated digging out of roots reduces the problem, but chemical control will provide a quicker solution.

Creeping thistle

Creeping thistle

Quick facts

Common name Creeping thistle
Botanical name Cirsium arvense
Areas affected Especially grassland and uncultivated soil
Main causes Thistles spread via creeping roots and air-borne seeds
Timing Seen and treated from spring to autumn

What is creeping thistle?

Creeping thistle (Cirsium arvense) is a weed that spreads using lateral roots. These roots are brittle and readily re-shoot if broken. They should be controlled if you wish to grow garden plants in the area, since they compete for light, water and food.



Spreading roots mean that the thistles form large clumps of spiny leaves and flowering stems ranging from 30cm-1m (1ft-3¼ft) in height on mainly grassland.

Dark pinky-purple flowers typical of the thistle family are borne July to September.

The problem

Creeping thistle (Cirsium arvense) is such a problematic weed because;

  • It produces a tap root on germination followed by lateral roots that grow horizontally. These lateral roots are brittle and produce buds at intervals that develop shoots
  • It easily regenerates from broken pieces. Individual plants, can form large clumps, are dioecious (either male or female) being virtually self-sterile. However, male and female plants growing adjacent to each other will cross-pollinate and a seed crop will be produced
  • Its seeds germinate readily, but particularly during periods of fluctuating temperatures, or when temperatures reach 20-30ºC (68-86ºF) during the day


The best time to apply weedkillers to thistles is when they are growing vigorously, but have not yet flowered. Digging up the plants can be done at any time of year. They can be controlled using non-chemical or chemical methods.

Non-weedkiller control

Cultural control methods are not easy but can work if consistently applied;

  • Digging up creeping thistles is problematic because the roots will easily regenerate from broken pieces. Persistence will be needed
  • Weaken creeping thistle by repeatedly cutting down the top growth over a number of years. This is best done just before the flower heads show colour as much of the weed's food reserves will have been used up in flower production
  • Clearing by digging may take two or three seasons as the plants will easily regenerate from small fragments that have been overlooked

Weedkiller control

In grass

  • Apply a selective lawn weedkiller containing clopyralid (Weedol Lawn Weedkiller or Vitax LawnClear 2). Several applications may be necessary to gain control
  • In rough grass areas, apply Vitax SBK Brushwood Killer, a selective herbicide based on triclopyr

In borders and unplanted areas

  • Apply a systemic weedkiller containing glyphosate (e.g. Roundup Fast Action, SBM Job done General Purpose Weedkiller or Doff Glyphosate Weedkiller; or for spot treatment use Roundup Gel) just before the flower heads show colour
  • Spray the foliage thoroughly, which should turn yellow after about a week
  • Watch for any signs of regrowth the following year. You may find that two or three treatments are needed
  • Glyphosate is not selective and any nearby plants or grass coming into contact with the spray may be killed
  • Ensure you follow the directions on the packaging of weedkillers

Inclusion of a weedkiller product does not indicate a recommendation or endorsement by the RHS. It is a list of products currently available to the home gardener.


Weedkillers for gardeners (Adobe Acrobat pdf document outlining weedkillers available to gardeners; see sections 1a, 1b and 4)


Chemicals: using a sprayer
Chemicals: using safely and effectively
Chemicals: using spot and broad-scale weedkillers
Weeds: non-chemical control

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