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, Powderpuff 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: Up to 6 feet (3 m) or more in height.

Growth Form: Forb/herb; erect, main stem, some branching above, spotted with cobweb (arachnoid) 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 (5-7.6 cm) 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 (300-2,000 m).

Habitat Preferences: Plains, mesas, rocky hillsides, canyons, foothills, roadsides, washes, dry exposed slopes; multiply habitat types; generally dry grasslands, arid pinyon woodlands, junipers, oaks and Joshua trees.

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.

North America species range map for Cirsium neomexicanum:
North American range map courtesy of Virginia Tech, Dept. of Forest Resources & Environmental Conservation

North America species range map for Cirsium neomexicanum: Click on image for full size map.
Click image for full size map

U.S. Weed Information: Unknown

Invasive/Noxious Weed Information: In North America the genus Cirsium is listed as a Noxious Weed by the States of:

  • Arkansas, listed as a “Noxious weed”,
  • Iowa, listed as a “Primary noxious weed”.

  • Plants included here are invasive or noxious. See the Comments: section below for additional information regarding “noxious” thistles.

    Wetland Indicator: Unknown

    Threatened/Endangered Information: Unknown

    Genus Information: In North America there are 91 species for Cirsium. Worldwide, The Plant List includes 481 accepted species names and a further 812 scientific names of infraspecific rank for the genus. The genus Cirsium was published by Philip Miller in 1754.

    In the Southwestern United States: Arizona and New Mexico each have 19 species of genus, California has 27 species, Nevada has 16 species, Texas has 12 species, Utah has 23 species. All data approximate and subject to revision.

    Comments: 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. In addition to the comments below, many insect species feed on New Mexico thistle.

    The genus Cirsium in general, has received adverse notoriety because of the introduction of two thistles native to Europe and now widespread throughout North America. The Canadian Thistle, Cirsium arvense and and the Bull Thistle, Cirsium vulgare are both listed as noxious primarily by agricultural interests. The Canadian Thistle and Bull Thistle together for example are listed as noxious weeds in 33 and 9 states respectively.

    In reality, most southwestern native thistles, including Graham's Thistle, are non-aggressive; non-invasive and beneficial as pollinators. Our native thistles have evolved over thousands of years and have mostly thrived without ever becoming weedy. However, many native thistles are now threatened and some species are at risk of extinction.

    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 Mohave Thistle, Cirsium mohavense and Yellowspine Thistle, Cirsium ochrocentrum.

    Importance to Wildlife, Birds and Livestock
    Thistles of the genus Cirsium are regularly visited by many wildlife species such as small mammals, hummingbirds and nectar-feeding bats. Also the seeds are attractive to finches including the American goldfinch and many other birds.

    Special Value to Native Bees, Butterflies and Insects
    Thistles of the genus Cirsium are important as a group as they are provide nectar and pollen for bees and they are frequently visited by pollinators such as Native bees, bumblebees and an exceptionally large number of insects and butterflies. "Monarch butterflies visit native thistle flowers more than any other wildflowers in some regions during their migration back to Mexico". They are also heavily used as food plants by the larvae of some Lepidoptera (butterfly) species. In addition to food Cirsium also provides nesting material and structure for Native bees and other insects.

    To find out more about Butterflies and Moths of North America visit BAMONA.

    For an interesting article on native thistles in North America see Native Thistles: A Conservation Practitioner's Guide, published on-line by The Xerces Society, For Invertebrate Conservation.

    The genus Cirsium is derived from the Greek words kirsion "a kind of thistle" in turn from kirsos, "a swollen vein or welt," as thistles are used as a remedy for such issues. The genus Cirsium was published by Philip Miller in 1754.

    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, Panacea; 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 06/18/2020
    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 06/15/2020) (for Cirsium) (for Cirsium)
    The Plant List (2013). Version 1.1. Published on the Internet; (accessed 06/15/2020).
    FNA 2006, Wiggins 1964, Kearney and Peebles 1969, Martin and Hutchins 1980; Editors; S.Buckley 2010, F.S.Coburn 2014 from SEINet Field Guide, on-line; (accessed 06/18/2020).
    David J. Keil, FNA | Family List | FNA Vol. 19, 20 and 21 | Asteraceae Cirsium; 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.
    David J. Keil 2012, Cirsium neomexicanum, in Jepson Flora Project (eds.) Jepson eFlora, /eflora/eflora_display.php?tid=2203, accessed on June 18, 2020.
    Native Plant Information Network, NPIN (2013). Published on the Internet - (accessed 06/18/2020). Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at The University of Texas, Austin, TX.
    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
    Etymology:Michael L. Charters California Plant Names: Latin and Greek Meanings and Derivations; A Dictionary of Botanical and Biographical Etymology - (accessed 02/03/2020)