Thistle: creeping

Creeping thistle is a perennial, British native that is visited by a wide range of insects. However it 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 this may take several seasons.

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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 perennial, found throughout the British Isles and provides a food source for a range of insects and birds. Thistles can be allowed to grow in wilder areas of the garden or in flower meadows for wildlife. Learn more about making the most of lawns as a wildlife habitat and encouraging wildlife in the garden;

Lawn and mini-meadow habitats

Lawn and mini-meadow habitats

Wildlife in gardens

Wildlife in gardens

Creeping thistle can become a serious weed as it spreads using lateral roots which are brittle and readily re-shoot if broken. As these large plants compete for light, water and food you may want to control this plant in lawns and borders. This page looks at options for the gardener where creeping thistle is becoming a problem.


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

  • 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
Creeping thisle (Cirsium arvense) is covered by the Weeds Act 1959 (which specifies five injurious weeds including creeping thistle).


The RHS believes that avoiding pests, diseases and weeds by good practice in cultivation methods, cultivar selection, garden hygiene and encouraging or introducing natural enemies, should be the first line of control. If chemical controls are used, they should be used only in a minimal and highly targeted manner.

Cultural control

Digging up the plants can be done at any time of year. Creeping thistle can be eradicated using cultural control methods.
  • Dig or fork out creeping thistles, aiming to remove as much of the root as possible. Persistence will be needed
  • Hoe off seedlings 
  • 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

Weedkiller control

The RHS does not support the use of weedkillers and recommends that alternative control methods are used. However, we do note that when gardeners struggle to control plants with cultural methods, regulated weedkillers/pesticides for home gardeners are available for use legally. Garden centres and large retailers selling weedkillers have trained staff who can advise on suitable products for your needs.

Weeds: non-chemical control

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