Carnegiea gigantea, Giant Saguaro

Southwest Desert Flora

Home to the plants of the Sonoran, Chihuahuan and Mojave Deserts

Cirsium ochrocentrum, Yellowspine Thistle

Cirsium neomexicanum, New Mexico Thistle

New Mexico Thistle blooms from March to September; successful blooms following winter and spring rains and again after heavy summer monsoon rainfall. Cirsium neomexicanum New Mexico Thistle large showy tubular flowers are attractive to many native bees (nectar and pollen) and insects. Cirsium neomexicanum New Mexico Thistle flowers may be pink, purple, lavender or rarely white; solitary or 2 or 3 flower heads are surrounded by sharp spine tipped bracts or phyllaries. Cirsium neomexicanum New Mexico Thistle has green or greenish-gray leaves, highly variable along stems; basal rosettes (as shown here); upper leaves oblong-elliptic to oblanceolate with wing like bracts. Spiny throughout. Cirsium neomexicanum New Mexico Thistle is a biennial or short lived perennial forb/herb. It has an erect main stem with branching above. Plants are spotted with cobweb like patches of short soft hairs; all parts with long stiff sharp spines Cirsium neomexicanum

Scientific Name: Cirsium neomexicanum
Common Name: New Mexico Thistle
Also Called: Desert Thistle, Foss Thistle, Lavender Thistle, Utah Thistle (Spanish: Cardo Santo)
Family: Asteraceae, Sunflower Family
Synonyms: (Carduus inamoenus, Cirsium arcuum, Cirsium neomexicanum var. neomexicanum, Cirsium neomexicanum var. utahense, Carduus nevadensis, Cirsium humboldtense, Cirsium utahense, Cirsium wallowense)
Status: Native
Duration: Biennial or short lived perennial.
Size: 6 feet or more.
Growth Form: Forb/herb; erect, main stem, some branching above, spotted with cobweb like patches of short soft hairs; all parts with long stiff sharp spines.
Leaves: Green or greenish-gray; highly variable along stems; basal rosettes, upper oblong-elliptic to oblanceolate, deeply pinnatifid, uppermost leaves shorter, wing like bracts; spiny throughout.
Flower Color: Pink or purple, lavender or white; disk flowers only, large showy flower heads 2 or 3 inches wide, surrounded by sharp spine tipped bracts or phyllaries; solitary or 2 or 3 flower heads on tips of peduncles, loose corymb-like arrays.
Flowering Season: March to September, successful blooms following winter and spring rains and again after heavy summer monsoon rainfall.
Elevation: 1,000 to 6,500 feet.

Habitat Preferences: Plains, mesas, rocky hillsides, foothills, roadsides and washes.

Recorded Range: In the United States in AZ, CA, CO, NM, NV and UT and in northwest Mexico. New Mexico Thistle is scattered throughout most of Arizona.

North America & US County Distribution Map for Cirsium neomexicanum.

U.S. Weed Information: No data available.

Invasive/Noxious Weed Information: In North America the genus Cirsium is listed as a Noxious Weed by the States of Arkansas and Iowa. Plants included here are invasive or noxious.

Wetland Indicator: No data available.
Threatened/Endangered Information: No data available

Genus Information: In North America there are more than 90 species and 113 recorded taxa overall for Cirsium. World wide, The Plant List includes 481 accepted species names and includes a further 812 of infraspecific rank for the genus.

In the Southwestern United States: Arizona has 19 species of Cirsium, California has 26 species, Nevada has 16 species, New Mexico has 19 species, Texas has 12 species, Utah has 23 species. All data is approximate and subject to taxonomic changes.

Comments: New Mexico Thistle is not an aggressive noxious weed however the genus Cirsium is often included in many weed lists presumably through its relationship to aggressive thistles such as the European invasive Bull Thistle, Cirsium vulgare. It attracts many different insects including bees, wasps and butterflies. A southwestern species, the geographic range of New Mexico Thistle suggests it to be a Mojave Desert species although it is native to and common in both the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts.

For a comprehensive thoroughly documented review of New Mexico Thistle see the USDA USFS Fire Effects Information System, or FEIS.

In Southwest Desert Flora also see; Arizona Thistle, Cirsium arizonicum, Graham's Thistle Cirsium grahamii and Yellowspine Thistle, Cirsium ochrocentrum.

Special Value to Native Bees, Birds and Insects

Cirsium neomexicanum flowers is attractive to many native bees (nectar and pollen) and insects. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation acknowledges in their 2017 publication "Native Thistles: A Conservation Practitioner's Guide" that "native thistles are misunderstood and wrongly maligned group of wildflowers..." when in fact native thistles provide resources for many species of bees, butterflies and other wildlife which rely heavily on these species plants. "Monarch butterflies visit native thistle flowers more than any other wildflowers in some regions during their migration back to Mexico".

Importance to Wildlife

Seeds from New Mexico Thistle (and other thistles) have been found to be one of the favorite foods of goldfinches and many other birds.


The genus Cirsium is from the Greek word "kirsion" "a kind of a thistle" which is translated from the Greek word "kirsos" meaning "swollen vein or welt"; a reference to their remedy against swollen veins and welts as thistles were quite often used as a remedy for these types of ailments.

The species epithet neomexicanum is a direct reference meaning of or from or otherwise honoring New Mexico.


New Mexico Thistle has been used for medicinal purposes by Navajo and Yavapai Indians.

  • Navajo Drug, Febrifuge; Plant used for chills and fevers.
  • Navajo, Ramah Drug, Eye Medicine; Cold infusion of root used as a wash for eye diseases.
  • Navajo, Ramah Drug, Panacea; Cold infusion of plant taken when one 'feels bad all over; and root used as a 'life medicine.'
  • Navajo, Ramah Drug, Veterinary Aid; Cold infusion of root used as a wash for livestock with eye diseases.
  • Yavapai Food, Unspecified; Raw, peeled stems used for food.

  • See species account from Native American Ethnobotany, University of Michigan, Dearborn.

    Date Profile Completed: 8/11/2012; Updated, 07/25/2015, updated 11/12/2017
    Arizona Flora, Kearney, Thomas H., Peebles, Robert H., 1960, University of California Press, Berkley and Los Angeles
    U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service on-line database and USGS ITIS search - (accessed 10/25/2017)
    The Plant List (2013). Version 1.1. Published on the Internet; (accessed 10/25/2017).
    FNA 2006, Wiggins 1964, Kearney and Peebles 1969, Martin and Hutchins 1980 A Field Guide, SEINet
    David J. Keil, FNA | Family List | FNA Vol. 19, 20 and 21 | Asteraceae, 41. Cirsium neomexicanum A. Gray, Smithsonian Contr. Knowl. 5(6): 101. 1853. Flora of North America Editorial Committee, eds. 1993+. Flora of North America North of Mexico. 16+ vols. New York and Oxford.
    James Eckberg, Eric Lee-Mäder, Jennifer Hopwood, Sarah Foltz Jordan, and Brianna Borders; 2017. Native Thistles: A Conservation Practitioner’s Guide
    SEINet synonyms, scientific names, geographic locations, general information, (accessed 11/11/2017).