Milk thistle identification and control
Milk thistle, a regulated Class A noxious weed, is a toxic, branching winter annual or biennial that grows 2-6 feet tall in disturbed areas, such as pastures, roadsides, ditches, and fencerows. Ingestion can cause nitrate poisoning in cattle and sheep. Young plants grow as rosettes. Shiny green leaves have distinct white marbling patterns, with spines on leaf edges and stems. In April-October, pink-purple flower heads, with broad, spiny bracts at their bases, appear singly at stem ends. Reproduces via seeds that persist in soil at least 9 years. This plant has a limited distribution in King County, concentrated in rural areas.
OverviewMilk thistle is toxic to livestock when consumed in large quantities, and it forms dense stands in pastures and rangeland. California reports milk thistle stands of up to 4 tons per acre in heavily infested areas.
The largest infestations in the state are in pastures in the southeastern section of King County but infestations are occasionally found elsewhere. Early detection and rapid, effective response is of the highest priority for this noxious weed.
Milk thistle is a large and highly distinctive thistle, with white marbling on the shiny green leaves. Flowerheads are bright magenta or purple, with thick, fleshy, spine-tipped bracts protruding around the base off the flowerhead. Leaves, stems and flowers are all armed with stiff, sharp spines.
Legal status in King County, Washington
Milk thistle is a Class A noxious weed in Washington State and eradication is required. Property owners in King County are required to remove this plant if it occurs on their property and the King County Noxious Weed Program will assist property owners with the control of this Class A noxious weed if requested.
Although occasionally found in gardens, it is illegal to sell or buy milk thistle in Washington State. The species is on the Washington quarantine list (known as the prohibited plants list) and it is prohibited to transport, buy, sell, offer for sale, or to distribute plants or plant parts, seeds in packets, blends or "wildflower mixes" of this species, into or within the state of Washington. All existing plantings should be removed in order to prevent accidental spread.
For more information about noxious weed regulations, see Noxious weed lists and laws.
Additional information on milk thistle
- Milk thistle weed alert (190 KB Acrobat file)
- Milk Thistle Best Management Practices (386 KB Acrobat file)
- Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board (external link)
What to do if you find this plant in King County, Washington
Please notify us if you see milk thistle in King County. Our program staff can provide the property owner or appropriate public agency with site-specific advice on how best to remove it. We map all known locations of regulated noxious weeds such as milk thistle in order to help us and others locate new infestations in time to control them.
Milk thistle photos
Report milk thistle in King County, Washington
- Please notify us through our online infestation form
Locate milk thistle in King County, Washington
- Use our interactive noxious weed map and search for milk thistle