Cirsium foliosum occurs in the northern Rockies from Wyoming to the Yukon and eastward to the Slave River area in the Northwest Territories and northeastern Alberta. Reports for Alaska are unconfirmed (R. Lipkin, Alaska Natural Heritage Program, pers. comm.). The name Cirsium foliosum has been misapplied to a wide range of plants across the western United States that now are treated as one or another variety of the polymorphic C. scariosum. The only documented occurrences of C. foliosum in the lower 48 states are in the mountains of northern Wyoming. Somewhat similar plants from other mountain areas of the western United States are treated as C. scariosum var. scariosum. During Pleistocene glaciations the ancestors of C. foliosum undoubtedly occupied a more southerly distribution and very likely came into direct contact with ancestral populations of C. scariosum. The observed similarities between C. foliosum and C. scariosum var. scariosum may be a relic of hybridization in that ancient contact zone. On the other hand, the corolla features of C. foliosum suggest that this is a self-pollinating species, perhaps derived from an ancestral population similar to the modern C. scariosum var. scariosum.