Musk Thistle

©Philip Precey

Musk thistle

Scientific name: Carduus nutans
A common thistle of roadside verges, rough grassland and waste ground, the Musk thistle has large, purple, nodding flower heads that appear in summer. It is attractive to a wide range of insects.

Species information


Height: up to 1.5m

Conservation status


When to see

June to August


The Musk thistle is a common species of chalky soils and can be found on rough grassland, roadside verges, waste ground and scrub. Its large, nodding flower heads are distinctive and appear from June to August. As with the other thistles, it is attractive to a wide range of insects, and is the foodplant of the caterpillars of the Painted lady butterfly. Birds, such as Greenfinches and Linnets, also gorge on the seeds it produces.

How to identify

The Musk thistle has a large, nodding, thistle-like flower head on each stem that comprises bright pink florets (tiny flowers) fringed by spiny bracts (leaf-like structures). Its leaves are divided with spiny lobes, and its stems are winged and cottony.


Found throughout the UK, but most common in England and Wales.

Did you know?

The flowers of the Musk thistle have a sweet, musky smell, hence the common name.

How people can help

Although they might not look especially wildlife-friendly, our roadside verges, railway cuttings and waste grounds can provide valuable habitats for all kinds of plants and animals. The Wildlife Trusts are involved in many projects to make these places as beneficial for wildlife as possible. We have a vision of a Living Landscape: a network of habitats stretching across town and country that allow wildlife to move about freely and people to enjoy the benefits of nature. Support this greener vision for the future by joining your local Wildlife Trust.