Rapid evolutionary change is increasingly being recognized as commonplace, but the evolutionary consequences for species and ecosystems under human-induced selection regimes have not been explored in detail, although many species occur in such environments. In a common garden experiment and with amplified fragment length polymorphism markers, we examined whether genetic differentiation has taken place between spatially intermixed populations of creeping thistles Cirsium arvense (Asteraceae) collected from a natural habitat (maritime shores), a semi-natural habitat (road verges) and arable fields under two management regimes: conventional and organic farming. Populations of C. arvense have altered genetically and locally adapted their growth patterns with changed land use. Although plants from different habitats showed similar total biomass production, shoot and root production was higher for maritime populations, suggesting selection for increased competitive ability. Competitive ability then declined in the order semi-natural, conventional farms and organic farms. Thistles in arable fields may be more selected for tolerance against disturbances from herbicides and mechanical weed control. In addition, early shoot sprouting and genetic analysis showed differentiation between plants originating from conventional farms and farms that were converted to organic 9–30 years ago, suggesting some adaptation to altered crop cultivation practices. © 2010 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2010, 99, 797–807.