How to Manage Pests

Pests in Gardens and Landscapes

Yellow Starthistle

Revised 9/07

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Yellow starthistle, Centaurea solstitialis.

Yellow starthistle, Centaurea solstitialis.

Yellow starthistle flower.

Yellow starthistle flower.

Seedling of yellow starthistle, Centaurea solstitialis, at the cotyledon stage.

Seedling of yellow starthistle, Centaurea solstitialis, at the cotyledon stage.

Seedling of yellow starthistle.

Seedling of yellow starthistle.

Damage to a starthistle seed head by Bangasternus orientalis.

Damage to a starthistle seed head by Bangasternus orientalis.

Yellow starthistle, Centaurea solstitialis, is native to Eurasia and was introduced to California around 1850 via South America. It is now common in open areas on roadsides, rangeland, wildlands, hay fields, pastures, and waste areas. Recent reports indicate that yellow starthistle infests between 10 and 15 million acres in California. Disturbances created by cultivation, poorly timed mowing, road building and maintenance, or overgrazing favor this rapid colonizer. It forms dense infestations and rapidly depletes soil moisture, thus preventing the establishment of other species. It is also poisonous to horses, causing a nervous disorder called “chewing disease” (nigropallidal encephalomalacia), which is fatal once symptoms develop. Horses are the only animal known to be affected in this manner and should not be allowed to graze on yellow starthistle.


Yellow starthistle is a gray-green to blue-green plant with a deep, vigorous taproot. It produces bright, thistlelike yellow flowers with sharp spines surrounding the base. Yellow starthistle grows to heights varying from 6 inches to 5 feet. The stems of mature plants are rigid, spreading, and typically branching from the base in open areas. Stems and leaves are covered with a loose, cottony wool that gives them a whitish appearance. Stems appear winged due to leaf bases that extend beyond the nodes. Basal leaves are 2 to 3 inches long and deeply lobed. Upper leaves are short (0.5 to 1 inch long) and narrow with few lobes.


Yellow starthistle is a long-lived winter annual that is usually found below 7,000 feet elevation in dry, light-intensive areas where average annual rainfall is between 10 and 60 inches. Seed output can be as high at 30,000 seeds per square meter, with about 95% of the seed being viable soon after dispersal. Most seeds germinate within a year of dispersal, but some can remain viable in the soil for more than 3 years.

Yellow starthistle seeds germinate from fall through spring, which corresponds to the normal rainy season in California. After germinating, the plant initially allocates most of its resources to root growth. By late spring, roots can extend over 3 feet into the soil profile, although the portion above ground is a relatively small basal rosette. This allows yellow starthistle to out-compete shallow-rooted annual species during the drier summer months when moisture availability is limited near the soil surface. It also helps explain why yellow starthistle survives well into the summer, long after other annual species have dried up, and why it can regrow after top removal from mowing or grazing.

The competitive ability of yellow starthistle also depends on light intensity at the soil surface during the seedling and rosette stages of development. Yellow starthistle proliferates at high light intensity and does poorly in low light. High light conditions often occur along roadsides, in disturbed sites, grasslands, and on south-facing slopes at higher elevations.


Control of yellow starthistle cannot be accomplished with a single treatment or in a single year. Effective management requires control of the current population and suppression of seed production, combined with establishment of competitive, desirable vegetation.


Yellow starthistle proliferates along roadsides. Invasion by this weed may be increased with disturbances created by road building and maintenance. Seeds are often spread by vehicles or with the transportation of livestock or contaminated soil. Survey roadsides for the presence of this weed and immediately control new infestations to prevent seed production and its subsequent spread.

Yellow starthistle also can be spread as a contaminant in grass seed. Only certified seed should be used for range or pasture seeding. Seed may also come as a contaminant in all classes of hay, particularly grass hay. Carefully check hay shipments for evidence of yellow starthistle. Hay used as mulch along roadsides or disturbed areas can be a source of yellow starthistle introduction. When feeding hay is suspected of containing yellow starthistle, place bales in one area and periodically check around feeding areas for signs of starthistle seedlings. Livestock that have fed in yellow starthistle-infested areas should not be pastured or shipped to uninfested areas. Control newly emerged seedlings to prevent establishment. It is important to control new infestations when they are small because spot eradication is least expensive and most effective at this time.

Biological Control

Four natural enemies of yellow starthistle have been imported from Europe and by 2003 were well established in California. These biological control agents include two weevils (Bangasternus orientalis and Eustenopus villosus) and two flies (Urophora sirunaseva and Chaetorellia succinea). They all attack the flower/seed head and directly or indirectly reduce seed production, the only means of reproduction and spread of the weed. The insects lay their eggs in, on, or near flower/seed heads and complete their development within them. Eustenopus villosus adults also directly reduce seed production by feeding on immature flower heads. All of these insects are highly host-specific to yellow starthistle and do not attack commercially valuable crops or native plants.

These insects already occur in most areas of California that are infested with yellow starthistle. If additional releases of these natural enemies are made, protect the release area from practices that may damage the insects. Such practices include insecticide applications, soil cultivation, summer-prescribed burning, or mowing when the plants are in the flowering stage. After establishment, the insects are capable of building up to high numbers and spreading on their own. These insects do best in areas with warm, dry summer climates.

The most recent releases, Eustenopus villosus and Chaetorellia succinea, have proven to be the most effective agents for yellow starthistle seed suppression. These insects are becoming more widespread throughout the state. However, they only suppress yellow starthistle seed production by about 50%, so they should not be considered as the sole method of control. It is possible that a combination of herbicides and biologicial control will provide more sustainable control than either technique used alone. Landowners and managers with yellow starthistle problems may contact their county agricultural commissioner’s office about obtaining these biological control insects.

Most recently a rust, Puccinea jaceae var. solstitialis, was approved for release in California. Trials are under way to determine the potential effectiveness of this organism on yellow starthistle.

Cultural Control

Yellow starthistle begins emergence with fall rains and continues to germinate throughout the rainy season. A single cultivation after the rainy season when soils are dry effectively controls yellow starthistle seedlings and rosettes. This treatment must be made after the last rains but before seeds are produced. If cultivation is carried out too early (e.g., before the last rains) seed will continue to germinate and another cultivation will be needed to control each new flush of seedlings that results from a spring rain.

Mowing can be used to manage yellow starthistle, provided it is well timed and used on plants with a high branching pattern. Mowing early growth stages results in increased light penetration and rapid regrowth of the weed. If plants branch from near the base, regrowth will occur from recovering branches. Repeated mowing of plants too early in their life cycles (rosette or bolting stages) or when branches are below the mowing height will not prevent seed production, as flowers will develop below the mower cutting height. Plants with a high branching pattern are easier to control, as recovery will be greatly reduced. Even plants with this growth pattern must be mowed in the late spiny or early flowering stage to be successful. An additional mowing may be necessary in some cases.

To encourage growth of desirable vegetation, let these species set seed before mowing, but be sure to mow well before starthistle is in full flower. In general, mowing is most effective when soil moisture is low and no irrigation or rainfall follows mowing.

Grazing is effective in reducing yellow starthistle seed production. Sheep, goats, or cattle eat yellow starthistle before spines form on the plant. Goats will eat starthistle even in the spiny stage. The plant’s crude protein concentration is variable, but ranges from 28% at the rosette stage down to 11% at the bud stage and should be sufficient to meet the general maintenance requirements for most ruminants. When it is abundant, yellow starthistle appears to have the ability to sustain animals several weeks beyond annual grass “dry down.” Intensive grazing in late May and June using large numbers of animals for short duration can reduce plant height, canopy size, and seed production. Avoid overgrazing, however; do not allow more than half the grass forage to be removed. Grazing more than this will reduce the grasses’ recovery rate and ability to shade out yellow starthistle.

Burning is best performed at the end of the rainy season when flowers first appear. Yellow starthistle should be green at this time and will require desiccated vegetation to burn. Most annual vegetation other than yellow starthistle, particularly grasses, should have dried and shed their seeds by this time. The foliage of these plants serves as a fuel source to allow a more complete burn. Burning for 2 or more consecutive years helps suppress yellow starthistle and deplete the soil seedbank. Burning can also increase the recovery and density of perennial grasses. Burning can damage biological control agents, but insects from adjacent areas will readily move back into the site the following year.


Control practices are capable of reducing yellow starthistle populations, but in the absence of competition, starthistle will often reestablish. Effective management requires that desirable plant species be encouraged or planted and managed to prevent yellow starthistle germination or growth. Species choice for revegetation will depend on the intended use of that site. Resident vegetation such as perennial bunchgrasses or wildflowers may be desirable along roadsides, abandoned pastures, or in rangelands and wildlands. In these situations, cultural, biological, or chemical methods can be used to reduce yellow starthistle while encouraging other plant species, if possible, with practices such as fertilization. Research efforts to reestablish native perennial grasses are in progress. Perennial grasses are slow to establish and may require herbicide treatments to assist yellow starthistle or annual grass control during establishment, but once well established, alternative controls such as properly timed grazing, mowing, or burning can be used effectively.

In pastures, eliminate dense stands of yellow starthistle and reseed the area with a fast-growing, competitive forage species. Although annual legumes work well for this purpose, the lack of selective herbicides makes follow-up treatments difficult. Therefore, grasses are best because selective herbicides can then be used to control yellow starthistle plants not eliminated by grass competition. In areas with scattered yellow starthistle infestations, eliminate scattered plants and overseed with a desirable species to provide enough competition to prevent yellow starthistle from reestablishing.

In all instances, choose desirable species that are well adapted to the site and not likely to become invasive themselves. Species that grow well are the best competitors.

Chemical Control

Both postemergent and preemergent herbicides are available to control yellow starthistle along roadsides, rights-of-way, and noncrop areas. Most herbicides registered for use in rangeland and pastures are only active postemergence. Clopyralid, however, has both preemergence and postemergence activity on yellow starthistle.

Postemergent Herbicides

Postemergent herbicide treatments generally work best on seedlings. The long germination period of yellow starthistle makes control with a single application almost impossible. A treatment following the first flush of seedlings opens a site up for later flushes. Waiting until later in the rainy season to apply a postemergent herbicide allows a greater number of seedlings to be treated, but larger plants will require higher herbicide rates and may not be controlled.

Aminopyralid and clopyralid are growth regulator herbicides for use in noncrop areas, including rangeland and pastures. Unlike other growth regulator herbicides, these are effective on yellow starthistle both postemergence and preemergence. The most effective timing for aminopyralid application is from December to March, when yellow starthistle is in the seedling to midrosette stage; its soil residual should last until the end of the rainy season. Clopyralid has a shorter soil residual and should be applied January to March. For both chemicals, earlier applications (i.e., in fall) may not provide full-season control, and later applications (bolting to early spiny stage) will require higher rates. A single application at the recommended time will provide season-long control. Aminopyralid is used at 0.75 to 1.75 oz acid equivalent/acre, and clopyralid is used at 2 to 3.96 oz acid equivalent/acre. Both chemicals are selective on many members of the sunflower family, particularly thistles, but can also injure legumes, including clovers. Most other broadleaf species and all grasses are not injured. There are no grazing restrictions after aminopyralid or clopyralid use in rangelands. While not registered for use around the home, aminopyralid and clopyralid do have registration for use in pastures, rangelands, rights-of-way, roadsides, and other noncrop areas. Clippings from treated areas should not be used as compost; these herbicides degrade slowly in compost and can be a problem when used as a mulch or fertilizer source in sensitive crops or landscapes.

2,4-D can provide acceptable control of yellow starthistle if it is applied at the proper rate and time. Treatment in the rosette growth stage provides better control than later applications. Amine formulations are as effective as ester formulations at the small rosette growth stage, and amine formulations reduce the chance of off-target movement.

Application rates of 0.5 to 0.75 lb active ingredient/acre will control small rosettes. Applications made later in the season, when rosettes are larger or after bolting has been initiated, require a higher application rate (1 to 2 lb active ingredient/acre) to achieve equivalent control. 2,4-D is a growth regulator and a selective herbicide that controls many other broadleaf plants, but has minimal effect on clovers and generally does not harm grasses. It has little, if any, soil activity. Drift from 2,4-D applications is common, particularly from ester formulations. Use caution when applying near sensitive vegetation or during windy or high temperature conditions. Certain formulations of 2,4-D require a restricted materials permit; generally formulations that are sold in small quantities (i.e., liquid formulations that do not exceed 1 quart and dry formulations that do not exceed 1 pound) do not require a permit.

Dicamba is very effective at controlling yellow starthistle at rates as low as 0.25 lb active ingredient/acre. When yellow starthistle rosettes are small, about 1 to 1.5 inches across, the 0.25 lb active ingredient/acre rate works well, but higher rates (0.5 to 0.75 lb active ingredient/acre) are needed if plants are larger. Applications made in late rosette to early bolting stages have provided excellent control, although earlier treatments are better.

Dicamba is also a growth regulator and selective herbicide that controls many broadleaf plants, including clovers, but does not harm grasses. Its soil activity is very short. Like 2,4-D, it is available as both an amine and as an ester formulation. Drift from dicamba applications is common, especially from the ester formulation. Some formulations have lower drift potential than others. Use caution when applying near sensitive vegetation. Certain formulations of dicamba require a restricted materials permit; generally formulations that are sold in small quantities (i.e., liquid formulations that do not exceed 1 quart and dry formulations that do not exceed 1 pound) do not require a permit.

Triclopyr at 0.5 lb active ingredient/acre provides complete control of yellow starthistle seedlings but is not as effective on larger plants. More mature plants require rates up to 1.5 lb active ingredient/acre. Like 2,4-D and dicamba, triclopyr is a growth regulator herbicide with little or no residual activity. It is foliar-absorbed and active on broadleaf species, including clovers, but typically does not harm grasses. Triclopyr is formulated as both an amine and ester. The ester formulation is more sensitive to drift than the amine form. Caution should be observed when using the ester formulation. This material is registered for use around the home as well as for pastures, rangelands, rights-of-way, roadsides, and other noncrop areas.

Glyphosate controls yellow starthistle at 1 lb active ingredient/acre. Good coverage, clean water, and actively growing yellow starthistle plants are all essential for adequate control. Unlike growth regulator herbicides, glyphosate is nonselective and controls most plants, including grasses. It has no soil activity. A 1% solution of glyphosate also provides effective control and is used at this concentration for spot treatment of small patches. An application of glyphosate is a very effective method of controlling starthistle plants in the bolting, spiny, and early flowering stages at 1 to 2 lb active ingredient/acre. However, glyphosate will severely damage desirable perennial grasses if they are sprayed as well. Glyphosate is registered for use around the home as well as for pastures, rangelands, rights-of-way, roadsides, and other noncrop areas.

Preemergent Herbicides

Preemergent herbicides must be applied before seeds germinate to be effective. The long germination period of yellow starthistle requires that a preemergent material have a lengthy residual activity. Make applications before a rain, which will move the material into the soil. Because these materials adhere to soil particles, off-site movement and possible injury of susceptible plants could occur if the soil is dry and wind occurs before rain. When yellow starthistle plants have already emerged, it is possible to combine a postemergent herbicide (to control emerged plants) with a preemergent herbicide (to provide residual control of any subsequent germination) for an effective control strategy.

Chlorsulfuron and sulfometuron are preemergent herbicides registered for roadsides and other noncrop uses. Chlorsulfuron was recently registered for use in rangelands. Both are very effective at controlling yellow starthistle when applied at 1 to 2 oz active ingredient/acre. Little postemergence activity occurs on yellow starthistle with these two compounds. Best control is achieved when applications are made before weeds emerge. They may not be used around the home.

Integrated Approaches

Combinations of prescribed burning and clopyralid can be very effective for yellow starthistle control. However, when using this integrated approach it is important that a prescribed burn be conducted the first year (or possibly for 2 years) and that clopyralid be applied in the last year of the program. Treating in the first year and burning in the second year may increase the starthistle problem because burning has been shown to increase seed germination during the following rainy season. Continued control of yellow starthistle after the last year of treatment can be accomplished by either mowing, spot spraying, or hand-pulling.



[UC Peer Reviewed]

Pest Notes: Yellow Starthistle
UC ANR Publication 7402         PDF to Print

Authors: J. M. DiTomaso, Plant Sciences, UC Davis; G. B. Kyser, Plant Sciences, UC Davis; W. T. Lanini, Plant Sciences, UC Davis; C. D. Thomsen, Plant Sciences, UC Davis; T. S. Prather, Department of Plant, Soil, and Entomological Sciences, University of Idaho
Produced by IPM Education and Publications, University of California Statewide IPM Program

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