Standardized: milk thistle
Other: Mary's thistle
Silybum marianum (L.) Gaertn.
Plant Family: Asteraceae
Milk thistle has been revered for thousands of years as an effective healing herb. However, early on all parts of the plant were used for a variety of purposes. The leaves were extensively utilized and often eaten as a vegetable.
Milk thistle supports the liver's natural detoxification process.*
Silybum marianum grows as an annual or biennial from three to seven feet in height, has smooth, shiny, lettuce-like leaves with white veins and spines along the margins, and a solitary purple flower that can grow up to two and a half inches in diameter.3 It is native to the Mediterranean region and southwestern Europe and has been widely cultivated for hundreds of years.4 In the U.S, it is considered a noxious weed in several states, particularly in the Pacific Northwest in states such as Washington.4 It is a member of the vast sunflower or Asteraceae family, which encompasses a wide variety of well-known plants such as lettuce (Lactuca sativa), the common daisy (Bellis perennis), the medicinal blessed thistle (Cnicus benedictus), and artichoke (Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus), to name a few.1 Many of the common names, and the outdated Latin name, refer to the belief that the milk of the Virgin Mary dropped on the plant leaving behind the milky white 'marbling' that give the leaves their very distinctive coloration.3,5
Cultivation And Harvesting
Harvest seeds by cutting off flower heads at the end of the growing season, often May-July, when white cottony fibers (pappus) appear.6 Dry flower heads in a warm, sunny place for around a week. Put in a burlap bag and tumble the bag around.7Then chop the flower heads to remove seeds, and winnow in the open air.6 (Michael Moore mentions that you will have to pull spines out of your body numerous times during this process.)
History And Folklore
In ancient Greece and Rome, it was the leaves that were utilized for a variety of ailments.2 However, Dioscorides does mention the usefulness of the seeds, as they were helpful for venomous stings and bites such as snakes bites.5 Another, association, however peculiar, is made with snakes. An old wives' tail suggested that a man wear milk thistle around his neck in order to inspire aggression among snakes. It is rather curious why anyone would want to do such a thing…8
The leaf was also used to support milk production in lactating mothers,5,9 the connection may have been related to the "Doctrine of Signatures" (when a botanical attribute or growth pattern is related to a medicinal quality) which, in the case of milk thistle, is not only that the leaves are believed to have been originally colored when the Virgin Mary's milk fell upon them, but also that they produce a milky sap when punctured, just like many other leaves in the lettuce family. Nicholas Culpepper, the 17th century botanist, avid astrologer, physician, herbalist, and author of the Complete Herbal (1653 CE), also concluded that both milk thistle and blessed thistle shared similar qualities. Culpepper, alongside many other herbalists of the time, also recommended boiling the young, tender plant as it had virtue as a spring tonic or alterative.10 During those times it was often eaten like boiled cabbage (after removing the spines, of course). The flowerhead, similar and related to the artichoke, were eaten as well.5
All parts of the milk thistle plant were utilized, including the root. Eventually, milk thistle seeds were incorporated into the Ecletics practice (physicians who practiced a branch of American medicine popular in the 1800-early 1900's which made use of botanical remedies) as a remedy for "congestion of the liver, spleen, and kidneys. "2
Flavor Notes And Energetics
Cooling and drying energetically with bitter taste.
cholagogic and choleretic, tonic,11 galactogogue, hepatoprotective,9 alterative10
Uses And Preparations
Dried seed (technically the fruit) eaten, as a tincture or tea, or powdered and encapsulated.
Each flower can produce up to 190 seeds, averaging 6,350 seeds per plant in its lifetime! This is great news for the herbalist, but not so great news for those waging a war against invasive species. (weeds)
Specific: Milk thistle may cause an allergic reaction in people who are sensitive to the Asteraceae (Ragweed) plant family.
General: We recommend that you consult with a qualified healthcare practitioner before using herbal products, particularly if you are pregnant, nursing, or on any medications.
- United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service, Beltsville Area Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN). Accessed on November 24, 2014.
- Blumenthal M, Goldberg A, Brinckmann J, eds. Herbal Medicine: Expanded Commission E Monographs. Austin, TX: American Botanical Council; Newton, MA: Integrative Medicine Communications; 2000.
- Foster, S. Herbal Renaissance. Utah: Peregine Smith Books; 1984.
- Weeds. Milk Thistle. A Pacific Northwest Extension Publication. Washington, Idaho, Oregon. Accessed on February 26, 2015.
- Grieve M. A Modern Herbal. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. Accessed at http://botanical.com/botanical on Februrary 26, 2015.
- Global Healing Center. Natural Health and Organic Living. http://www.globalhealingcenter.com/organic-herbs/growing-milk-thistle
- Moore, M. Silybum marianum. 1994. Accessed at: Henriette's Herbal at http://www.henriettes-herb.com/archives/best/1994/silybum.html on February 26, 2015.
- Cunningham, S. Cunningham's Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs. Woodbury: Llewellyn Publications; 2000.
- Khan, I. A., & Abourashed, E. A. (2011). Leung's encyclopedia of common natural ingredients: used in food, drugs and cosmetics. John Wiley & Sons.
- Culpeper N. Culpeper's complete herbal: a book of natural remedies for ancient ills. Accessed at: http://www.completeherbal.com/culpepper/ on February 26, 2015.
- Blumenthal, M. (2003). The ABC clinical guide to herbs. American Botanical Council. Accessed on February 26, 2015.
*This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. For educational purposes only.