(Note: The following article is largely from a Colorado State University fact sheet by K.G. Beck, CSU Weed Science Specialist, available at http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/natres/03108.html)
Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense) is an aggressive, creeping perennial weed that infests crops, pastures, rangeland, roadsides, and noncrop areas. Introduced from Eurasia, Canada thistle is one of 12 state-wide noxious weeds in Kansas. The acres infested with Canada thistle in Kansas have doubled since 2002.
Generally, infestations start on disturbed ground, including ditch banks, overgrazed pastures, tilled fields or abandoned sites. Canada thistle reduces forage consumption in pastures and rangeland because cattle typically will not graze near infestations.
One plant can colonize an area 3 to 6 feet in diameter in one or two years. Canada thistle grows in a variety of soils and can tolerate up to 2 percent salt content. It is most competitive in deep, well aerated, productive, cool soils. It usually occurs in 17- to 35-inch annual precipitation zones or where soil moisture is adequate. It is less common in light, dry soils.
Canada thistle develops from seed or vegetative buds in its root system. Horizontal roots may extend 15 feet or more and vertical roots may grow 6 to 15 feet deep. Canada thistle emerges from its root system in mid- to late spring (late April through May) and forms rosettes.
The greatest flush of root-derived plants occurs in spring, but another flush occurs in fall. A flush can occur anytime during the growing season when soil moisture is adequate. This is particularly a problem when Canada thistle growth is disturbed by tillage or herbicides. This feature can be manipulated to the land manager’s advantage.
Plants that germinate from seed do so at about the same time as root-derived shoots. Seedlings grow slowly and are sensitive to competition, particularly if shaded. Canada thistle seedlings develop a perennial habit (the ability to reproduce from their root systems) about seven to eight weeks after germination.
Reproduction and spread
Canada thistle begins to flower in late spring to early summer in response to 14- to 16-hour days. Plants are male or female (dioecious) and grow in circular patches that often are one clone and sex. Female flowers produce a sweet odor and insects readily pollinate different sexed patches up to 200 feet apart.
Canada thistle develops seed sparingly. It may produce 1,000 to 1,500 seeds per flowering shoot. Generally, vegetative reproduction from its root system contributes to local spread and seed to long distance dispersal. Seed may be transported long distances by water, or attached to animals, clothing, farm equipment and other vehicles, and in contaminated crop seed. Also, wind may help disperse seed, but most often, the feathery pappus breaks off, leaving the seed attached to the parent plant to be dispersed by other means. Seed can remain viable in soil up to 22 years, and deep burial promotes survival longevity.
Canada thistle allocates most of its reproductive energy into vegetative propagation. New shoots and roots can form almost anywhere along the root system of established plants. Tillage segments roots and stimulates new plants to develop. Shoots emerge from root and shoot pieces about 15 days after disturbance by tillage. Small root pieces, 0.25 inch long by 0.125 inch in diameter, have enough stored energy to develop new plants. Also, these small roots can survive at least 100 days without nutrient replenishment from photosynthesis.
The key principle to Canada thistle control is to stress the plant and force it to use stored root nutrients. Canada thistle can recover from almost any stress, including control attempts, because of root nutrient stores. Therefore, returning infested land to a productive state occurs only over time. Success requires a sound management plan implemented over several years.
Grasses and alfalfa can compete effectively with Canada thistle if their growth is favored by good management. Maintain fertility and, if possible, moisture at optimum levels to favor grass or alfalfa growth. Soil analysis can easily determine fertility needs. Be cautious with nitrogen fertilizers, because excess available soil nitrogen may favor weed growth.
These are essential management steps to ensure optimum desirable plant growth and competition. However, competition alone seldom is effective against Canada thistle.
Read the label, follow directions and use precautions. Research at Colorado State University shows that Tordon 22K (picloram), Milestone (aminopyralid), Transline (clopyralid), Banvel/Vanquish/Clarity (dicamba), and Telar (chlorsulfuron) are effective against Canada thistle.
Canada thistle is difficult to control and re-treatment for one to three or more years after the initial application is common. Refer to the table below for use rates and application timing. These herbicides are most effective when combined with cultural and/or mechanical control.
Colorado State University data also indicate that Banvel/Vanquish/Clarity or Telar are effective when combined with 2,4-D as a split-season application.
Apply 2,4-D, 2 quarts per acre, in spring when Canada thistle is 10 to 15 inches tall, in pre-bud to early bud growth stages. Re-treat in fall with Banvel/Vanquish/Clarity (2 quarts/acre) or Telar (1 ounce/acre) to re-growth. Use a surfactant (0.25 percent to 0.5 percent v/v; equivalent to 1 to 2 quarts of surfactant per 100 gallons of spray solution) with Telar for adequate control.
Curtail is clopyralid plus 2,4-D and is effective on Canada thistle but control tends to be less than from Transline. Recent research at Colorado State University shows that the performance of Curtail to control Canada thistle can be improved when preceded by two or three mowings. When Canada thistle infestations occur in situations where root growth would be restricted, such as habitats with high water tables, begin mowing when it is 12 to 15 inches tall. Repeat mowings at about one month intervals. Apply Curtail at 2 to 3 quarts/acre in October or about one month after the third mowing. Follow this regimen for two consecutive years.
Mowing hay meadows can be an effective tool if combined with herbicide treatments. Mowing alone is not effective unless conducted at one-month intervals over several growing seasons. Always combine mowing with cultural and chemical control. Mowing at hay cutting stimulates new Canada thistle shoots to develop from its root system.
In irrigated grass hay meadows, fall herbicide treatments that follow mowing can be an effective management system because more Canada thistle foliage is present after cutting to intercept herbicide. Additionally, root nutrient stores decrease after mowing because the plant draws on them to develop new shoots.
If a Canada thistle infestation exists in a field that will be rotated to alfalfa, control the weed before seeding alfalfa. Alfalfa is an effective competitor only after it is established. It will not adequately establish in a well-developed Canada thistle infestation. A Canada thistle management system can start with crop or grass competition combined with herbicides, with the field rotated to alfalfa when the management plan ends.
Additional information about Canada thistle management and control can be found at the Kansas Department of Agriculture web site: http://www.ksda.gov/plant_protection/content/49/cid/895.
Current recommendations on chemical control of Canada thistle in Kansas can be in the 2012 Chemical Weed Control for Field Crops, Pastures, Rangeland, and Noncropland SRP 1063 publication available at your local county extension office or online at: http://www.ksre.ksu.edu/library/crpsl2/SRP1063.pdf.