Pulling thistles, sowing hope

By Susan Marsh

For the past few years I’ve participated in “Thistle Thursdays,” targeting a popular trail near Jackson, Wyoming. The weekly weed party was organized in 2019 by Morgan Graham, wildlife habitat specialist with the Teton County Conservation District, and it attracts more volunteers each year — 16 of us in 2023.

To slow the steady march of musk thistle, a fast-spreading weed from Eurasia, we spend Thursday morning each week bending down to tackle these interlopers. We know what we do is a drop in the bucket, but right here, along this trail, we see results.

Joining Morgan is a mixed crew: native plant enthusiasts, elk hunters, employees of non-profits and the Forest Service, plus “youngsters” in their 30s and retirees like me.

My friend Mary, nearly 80, wins the prize as the oldest and most enthusiastic of the crew. While we were waiting for a friend at a trailhead this summer, she spotted a musk thistle on a steep slope, went to her car for some gloves and signaled for me to follow. “Let’s get that one,” she said. We ended up uprooting several.  

Musk thistle (Carduus nutans) is an invasive weed, and like many invasive plants, it is adaptable and vigorous, producing prolific seeds. It competes for light and nutrients with native plants. Eventually, it can replace them.

To be fair, it has positive qualities. Bees, butterflies and other pollinators are attracted to its magenta flowers, and it blooms later than many native wildflowers, extending the season for insects. Songbirds eat its seeds.

But wildlife and livestock won’t eat musk thistle because of its spines. Where it grows, grazing animals must forage more heavily on other plants, reducing their vigor, which allows musk thistle to invade ever more space.

Tackling a stand of musk thistle requires determination. All flowers and buds are removed and placed in bags or bins. The plant, a long-lived biennial, must be cut off below the base, or pulled, to prevent further blooming.

All of us volunteers are suited up in protective gear that includes heavy gloves, long sleeves and sturdy boots. The work is hard, but the hours go quickly with conversation, laughter and impromptu contests to see who can pull out the largest thistle without tools.

We talk about plant ecology in general, but one question often comes up: “What makes it a weed?” Simply put, a plant is a weed if doesn’t belong where it’s growing. But as humans, we’re inconsistent.

To a farmer dependent on crops for a living, a weed is any plant, native or otherwise, that competes with the crop. To a hand spinner of wool, the invasive and noxious tansy is welcome for its rich golden dye. To a rancher whose cattle or sheep forage on public land, tall larkspur and several members of the pea family, all native plants, should be sprayed, for they are toxic.

We also pull out other invasives such as Canada thistle, hound’s tongue, salsify, toadflax and knapweed. Despite our best efforts, these plants are flourishing. As we work, it’s fun when bicyclists whizzing by yell out “thank you!”, though some shake their heads. “You’re pissing in the wind,” one called.

But before-and-after photographs show that our hours of work make a difference. There is satisfaction in seeing the beds of two pickup trucks filled with bags of musk thistle blossoms.

Part of me admits that I’m not making a huge difference, but a bigger part is glad I have done my little bit for however long its effects may last. My Thistle Thursday friends agree.

That’s why we keep coming back. It’s a way to say, “I’m just going to enjoy my life for as long as it lasts.” Pulling weeds and filling buckets with their flowers is a lot like tending a garden at home. We’re just tending a larger garden, the Eden we all inherited.

Most of all, we’re expressing what is perhaps the most precarious of human sentiments these days: Hope.

Susan Marsh is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring conversation about the West. She is a naturalist and writer for Mountain Journal, which covers Yellowstone’s wildlife, wild lands and culture. A longer version of this opinion appeared in mountainjournal.org.


This column was published in the following newspapers:

11/13/2023 Bozeman daily chronicle Bozeman MT
11/14/2023 Boulder Monitor Boulder MT
11/14/2023 Forest Grove News Times Forest Grove OR
11/14/2023 Valley Times News Portland OR
11/14/2023 Four Points Press Garryowen MT
11/13/2023 Columbia County Spotlight Scappose OR
11/14/2023 The Newberg Graphic Newberg OR
11/14/2023 Hillsboro Times News Hillsboros OR
11/14/2023 Beaverton Valley Times Beaverton OR
11/14/2023 Sherwood Gazette Portland OR
11/14/2023 Craig Daily Press Craig co
11/14/2023 Vail Daily Vail CO
11/14/2023 Lake Powell Chronicle Page AZ
11/15/2023 Jackson Hole News & Guide Jackson Hole WY
11/15/2023 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
11/15/2023 Denver Post Denver CO
11/15/2023 Rio Blanco Herald Times Meeker CO
11/15/2023 Rock Springs Rocket Miner Rock Springs WY
11/15/2023 Aspen Daily News Aspen CO
11/13/2023 Steamboat Pilot Steamboat Springs CO
11/18/2023 Carlsbad Current-Argus Carsbad NM
11/16/2023 Wallowa County Chieftain Enterprise OR
11/18/2023 Sierra Nevada Ally Carson City NV
11/18/2023 Farmington Daily Times Farmington NM
11/17/2023 Durango Herald Durango CO
11/18/2023 Yahoo sunnyvale ca
11/17/2023 Taos News Taos NM
11/18/2023 Pueblo Chieftain Pueblo CO
11/17/2023 Newport Miner Newport WA
11/18/2023 Las Cruces Bulletin Las cruces NM
11/17/2023 suislaw News Florence OR
11/19/2023 Cortez Journal Cortez CO
11/18/2023 Greeley Tribune Greeley CO
11/24/2023 Coos Bay World Link Coos Bay OR
11/21/2023 Wyofile WY
11/16/2023 Camus-Washougal Post Record Camus WA
11/16/2023 Durango Telegraph Durango CO
11/23/2023 Wyofile WY
11/25/2023 Bandon Western World Bandon OR
11/24/2023 Del Norte Triplicate Crescent City CA
12/01/2023 Pagosa Springs Sun Pagosa Springs CO
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Steve Winslow
6 months ago

Good for you hard working volunteers! Sometimes just the feeling that you’re making something even just a little bit better makes it worthwhile. I work on a 1,200 acre sheep ranch near Zion National Park, Utah. I’ve made real progress over the past 15 years in reducing Musk thistle, Scotch thistle, and Bull thistle on the property. I used to spend 30-40 days a summer working on weeding and this year only 7, completely eliminating thistle is some spots and really kicking it back in others. But have concluded that it will always be around and part of the plant composition. Keeping it in check will be a never-ending chore for me and eventually my children and grandchildren! Keep up the good work!

6 months ago
Reply to  Steve Winslow

thanks and same to you for all the hard work you have done. It’s great when you can see the difference.

Jeffrey h Desautels
6 months ago

I don’t do much hiking anymore, but when I did, in Colorado, I would use my hiking poles to whack the seed pods off the stalks. Sort of like an old cavalryman with sabre – made kind of a game of it. I thought, without really knowing, that if I got the pod before the seeds matured, I might stop at least the pods I whacked from forming new plants. Was there any truth to that theory?

Becca Lawton
6 months ago

“P-ing in the wind” is a time-honored method of self expression. Go for it! You’re building community with your hope and hard work.

Sally Jones
6 months ago

I wish there were groups like this in Denver. We could really make a difference. Also, I think of Lake Powell where invasive plants line the shores. It could be tackled at least.

Sally Jones
6 months ago
Reply to  Sally Jones

I forgot, what do you do with the thistle? You could make weed tea that would be benefit the environment.

John M Buerger
4 months ago

I read the weed pulling article with sore elbows, been there done that … until I decided in 1996 to learn as much as I could when I picked up the book, “Weed Controls Without Poisons”. This started me on a business

John M Buerger
4 months ago

that is now 27 years applying soil amendments of minerals, microbes and carbon blends to manage weeds and improve quality plant populations. You see when these blends are on the ground some plant species are harmed and other plants thrive. Take for example. Tap and rhizome rooted plants do not flourish in soils where there is an an abundance of soil microbe activity, but plants with hair roots, like Timothy, / orchard grass and woody roots of trees and shrubs grow better with microbe active soils. Many noxious range / pasture weeds are not poisonous like thistles, curlydock, oxeye daisy, but because they are bitter and bland grazing animals avoid them.

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