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Dune Thistle (Cirsium pitcheri)

Life history

Species overview

Dune Thistle (Cirsium pitcheri), a State Threatened and Federally Threatened plant, is found on open sand dunes adjacent to the Great Lakes. Blooming occurs late June through late July; fruiting occurs late July through late August. The optimal identification period for this species is late June through late August.

Synonyms: Cnicus pitcheri


  • Distinguishing characteristics: Long, linear, deeply lobed leaves densely covered in short, white hairs; white to pale pink flowers; only found on sand dunes near the Great Lakes.
  • Flower characteristics: Several white to pale pink flower heads; phyllaries 2 to 3 cm long and tipped by weak spines.
  • Fruit characteristics: Sunflower-like seed pod 5 to 7.5 mm in length.
  • Leaf characteristics: Leaves deeply lobed, each lobe up to 8 cm long and 7mm wide and tipped by a weak spine, long and linear; lower surfaces of densely covered in short, white hairs, upper surfaces may have less dense covering.


  • Blooming phenology: late June through late July
  • Fruiting phenology: late July through late August
  • Optimum time to identify: late June through late August


  • Growth form: Forb-erect
  • Vegetative reproduction:
  • Life cycle: Biennial or Perennial
  • Comments: Associated Species: Ammophila breviligulata, Calamovilfa longifolia ssp. magna, Tanacetum huronense, Elymus canadensis, Solidago simplex.

State status

Status and Natural Heritage Inventory documented occurrences in Wisconsin

The table below provides information about the protected status - state and federal - and the rank (S and G Ranks) for Dune Thistle (Cirsium pitcheri). See the Working List Key for more information about abbreviations. Counties shaded blue have documented occurrences for this species in the Wisconsin Natural Heritage Inventory database. The map is provided as a general reference of where this species has been found to date and is not meant as a range map.

Documented locations of Cirsium pitcheri in the Natural Heritage Inventory Database as of March 2012.

Summary Information
State StatusTHR
Federal Status in WisconsinLT
State RankS2
Global RankG2G3
Tracked by NHIY

Habitats and landscapes

The Natural Heritage Inventory has developed scores indicating the degree to which each of Wisconsin's rare plant species is associated with a particular natural community or ecological landscape. This information is similar to that found in the Wildlife Action Plan for animals. As this is a work in progress, we welcome your suggestions and feedback.

General habitat information

  • Habitat description: Found on open sand dunes adjacent to the Great Lakes.
  • Soils: Sandy soils.

Natural communities

This table lists the natural communities that are associated with Dune Thistle. Scores for natural community associations are: "significant" association (score=3), "moderate association" (score=2) or the species can be present but is only weakly associated with the community (score=1).

Natural communities score
Great Lakes Dune 3

Ecological landscapes

This table lists the ecological landscape association scores for Dune Thistle. The scores (3=High, 2=Moderate, 1=Low, 0=None) also correspond to the map.

Map of the Ecological Landscapes of Wisconsin.

Species guidance

The Endangered Resources Program has developed avoidance measures and management guidelines for plants on the Natural Heritage Working List. These are a work in progress, and we welcome your suggestions and feedback. Sources used in developing this information can be found here.

Avoidance measures

These are specific actions designed to avoid "take" (mortality) of this species.

  • Avoid known individual plant locations and conduct operations elsewhere when they are least likely to cause damage. Ideally, this would involve frozen, snow-covered ground. However, in areas of the state where frozen conditions are unreliable, very dry soils late in the growing season might be the best available alternative. Consult with a biologist, if needed.
  • Avoid broadcast spraying of herbicides; use care with spot spraying.

Management guidance

Management guidelines are additional considerations that may help maintain or enhance habitat for this species

  • Avoid any activities which destabilize the dune, including the use of off-road vehicles, removal of native vegetation and pedestrian recreational overuse.


Dune Thistle  [Photo #1220]

Dune thistle is an extreme habitat specialist restricted to intact dune systems along the shores of the Great Lakes. This globally rare plant is US Threatened.

Photo © Kitty Kohout.

Dune Thistle  [Photo #12210]

Dune thistle (US Threatened, WI Threatened) is a highly specialized plant endemic to dune habitats along the Great Lakes shores.

Photo by Thomas Meyer, WDNR.

Dune Thistle  [Photo #12211]

Photo by Thomas Meyer, WDNR.

Dune Thistle  [Photo #12212]

Photo by Thomas Meyer, WDNR.

Dune Thistle  [Photo #12297]

Photo by Thomas Meyer, WDNR.

Dune Thistle  [Photo #986]

Dune thistle (Cirsium pitcheri).

Photo by Darcy Kind, WDNR.

Dune Thistle  [Photo #987]

Dune thistle (Cirsium pitcheri).

Photo by Darcy Kind, WDNR.

Dune Thistle  [Photo #988]

Dune thistle (Cirsium pitcheri).

Photo by Darcy Kind, WDNR.

Dune Thistle  [Photo #989]

Dune thistle (Cirsium pitcheri).

Photo by Darcy Kind, WDNR.

Support for Wisconsin's rare plant information has been provided by the Division of Forestry, the Endangered Resources Fund and the Wisconsin Rare Plant Preservation Fund. To donate, visit the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin [exit DNR].

Last revised: Tuesday, October 07, 2014
Southwest Savanna Southern Lake Michigan Coastal Western Coulees and Ridges Southeast Glacial Plains Central Sand Hills Central Lake Michigan Coastal Central Sand Plains Northern Lake Michigan Coastal Northern Lake Michigan Coastal Northeast Sands Western Prairie North Central Forest Northern Highlands Northwest Lowlands Northwest Sands Northwest Lowlands Superior Coastal Plains Forest Transition