What's the status of the Pitcher's thistle?

Pitcher's thistle is an endangered species according to the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). This means that unless something is done to stop the plant's current decline, Pitcher's thistle could soon disappear from the Earth. In the United States, Pitcher's Thistle is considered to be threatened.

What's so special about the Pitcher's thistle?

Pitcher's thistle helps anchor dunes and provides food for a variety of animals.

Pitcher's thistle is an important part of the extremely fragile dune ecosystems of the upper Great Lakes.

Perhaps its most obvious value to the ecosystem is as food. A variety of animals feed on the seeds and leaves of Pitcher's thistle. There is also a species of moth that requires Pitcher's thistle for its survival.

Less obvious is the role Pitcher's thistle plays in providing a habitat for other dune dwellers. The plant is anchored by a long root (called a taproot). The taproot helps to hold the plant in place, and to draw water from deep below. By tapping deeply into the sand, Pitcher's thistle helps anchor the dune, creating a stable habitat for other plants and animals.

Pitcher's thistle flowers only once, when it is 2 to 10 years old, and then dies.

Why is Pitcher's thistle in danger?

The Great Lakes dunes where Pitcher's thistle lives are among the most rare and most threatened ecosystems in Canada . The dunes, and many of the species that live on them, have undergone significant declines during the past century. These declines are largely the result of shoreline development and recreational activities on the dunes and the beaches near them.

Many Pitcher's thistles die during the first few years of their life. If the plant is lucky enough to make it through this period, it must still overcome a number of threats if it is to survive long enough to bloom. Shoreline development, all-terrain vehicles and simply being stepped on are the biggest threats to Pitcher's thistle.

What is Parks Canada doing to help Pitcher's thistle?

Parks Canada is working hard to improve our understanding of Pitcher's thistle and to educate people about the need to protect the plant and the dune ecosystem in which it thrives. Ongoing research, recovery action and public education are helping ensure the survival of this rare plant.

Recovery actions

Following a near washout of a beach containing Pitcher's thistle, a new colony was introduced to the park's Middle Beach in 1991. Parks Canada has joined the Pitcher's thistle recovery team, whose efforts include locating remaining populations, identifying habitat and preparing a plan for the recovery of the species.


A Pitcher's thistle adult at Carter Bay on Manitoulin Island.

An example of this kind of work can be seen at Pukaskwa National Park , where staff have been monitoring the Pitcher's thistle since 1981. Each year, every plant is identified and marked to indicate its stage in its life cycle.

The Species at Risk Act (SARA) requires that federally endangered species, such as Pitcher's Thistle, be protected through federal or provincial regulations. SARA also requires that the habitat necessary for the survival or recovery of endangered species be protected.

Public education

The park has initiated programs to educate private and public property owners about this unique species and its special habitat. Low fences protect the colonies and signs identify the area as a "fragile dune environment" containing endangered species. All of these precautions, as well as raised boardwalks in the dune areas of the park, help to keep visitors on the established trails and away from the thistles.

Visitors curious to see what a Pitcher's thistle looks like are given the opportunity at the park's visitor centre, where a display shows the plant in a natural setting at three stages of growth.

How can I help?

  • Learn more about Pitcher's thistle and about other species at risk, particularly those in your area.
  • When visiting an area like Pukaskwa National Park, be sure to stay on established trails and boardwalks.
  • If a dune runs through your property, consider ways to protect it. Signs, fences and boardwalks are some ways you can deter people from damaging this environment.
  • If there is a colony of Pitcher's thistle near you, monitor and record its progress.
  • Share what you learn with others.