Musk thistle likely is the most easily identified invasive thistle in North Dakota, yet many people confuse this plant with either bull thistle or plumeless thistle. Musk thistle often grows in excess of 6 feet tall, has very large flowers that tend to droop, and the flower has very characteristic brown bracts that resemble a pine cone. The flowers usually are deep rose, solitary and very large, ranging from 1.5 to 3 inches in diameter. Rosettes are dark green with a light green midrib, usually smooth and lacking pubescence and often grow 2 feet or more in diameter.
Musk thistle stems are usually very branched with spiny wings; however, the wings are interrupted and not complete along the stem as with bull or plumeless thistle. The leaves are oblong to lanceolate and lobed with slender spines along the margin. They generally have little pubescence underneath, which helps distinguish musk thistle from plumeless thistle. However, the subspecies C. nutans macrocephalus (Desf.) has very pubescent leaves.
The seed weevil Rhinocyllus conicus was introduced from Eurasia to control musk thistle by reducing seed production. Larvae develop in the flower head and consume the seed as it develops. The weevils can reduce seed production by nearly 80 percent, but they are attracted more to earlier blooming rather than to later blooming flowers. The late-season flowers produce seeds with little damage from the weevil, which sustains the musk thistle population. Building a high enough population of insects to greatly reduce seed production takes five to 10 years. These insects first were introduced into North Dakota in the early 1970s. R. conicus is not specific to musk thistle and has been found feeding on other invasive thistles, such as Canada thistle. However, this insect also feeds on native thistles, including several that are on the protected or endangered species list and interstate transport is not permitted.
The thistle crown weevil (Trichosirocalus horridus) was introduced into North America from Europe in the mid-1970s. Larvae of this insect feed on the growing tip as the musk thistle rosette bolts. While seldom effective by itself, it does help control musk thistle when combined with Rhinocyllus conicus. Feeding by T. horridus larvae on musk thistle growing tips causes the plant to produce multiple shoots. The resulting flower heads are reduced in size and produce fewer seeds, and the increased number of flower heads results in an increased population of R. conicus. Interstate transport of T. horridus is no longer permitted.
From Lym and Travnicek, 2015, NDSU Circ. W-1411.