Milk Thistle

Botanical Name: Silybum marianum
Family: N.O. Compositae,Asteraceae
Subfamily: Lactucoideae
Tribe: Cynareae
Genus: Silybum
Species: S. marianum
Kingdom: Plantae
Order: Asterales

Synonym-:Marian Thistle.  Carduus lactifolius. Carduus marianus. Centaurea dalmatica. Mariana lactea.
Common Names-:- Cardus marianus,  Milk thistle,  Blessed milkthistle,   Marian thistle, Mary thistle, Saint Mary‘s thistle, Mediterranean milk thistle, Variegated thistle and Scotch thistle,  Mary thistle, holy thistle. Milk thistle is sometimes called silymarin, which is actually a mixture of the herb’s active components, including silybinin (also called silibinin or silybin).

Latin Name-:-Silybum marianum

Habitat : Milk Thistle is native to  S. Europe, N. Africa and W. Asia. Naturalized in Britain.  It grows on  waste places, usually close to the sea, especially if the ground is dry and rocky.  .

Parts Used-: Whole herb, root, leaves, seeds and hull.

Description: Members of this genus grow as annual or biennial plants. The erect stem is tall, branched and furrowed but not spiny. The large, alternate leaves are waxy-lobed, toothed and thorny, as in other genera of thistle. The lower leaves are cauline (attached to the stem without petiole). The upper leaves have a clasping base. They have large, disc-shaped pink-to-purple, rarely white, solitary flower heads at the end of the stem. The flowers consist of tubular florets. The phyllaries under the flowers occur in many rows, with the outer row with spine-tipped lobes and apical spines. The fruit is a black achene with a white pappus


Only two species are currently classified in this genus:

Silybum eburneum Coss. & Dur., known as the Silver Milk Thistle, Elephant Thistle, or Ivory Thistle
Silybum eburneum Coss. & Dur. var. hispanicum
Silybum marianum (L.) Gaertner, the Blessed Milk Thistle, which has a large number of other common names, such as Variegated Thistle.
The two species hybridise naturally, the hybrid being known as Silybum × gonzaloi Cantó , Sánchez Mata & Rivas Mart. (S. eburneum var. hispanicum x S. marianum)

A number of other plants have been classified in this genus in the past but have since been relocated elsewhere in the light of additional research.

S. marianum is by far the more widely known species. It is believed to give some remedy for liver diseases (e.g. viral hepatitis) and an extract, silymarin, is used in medicine. The adverse effect of the medicinal use of milk thistle is loose stools.

This handsome plant is not unworthy of a place in our gardens and shrubberies and was formerly frequently cultivated. The stalks, like those of most of our larger Thistles, may be eaten, and are palatable and nutritious. The leaves also may be eaten as a salad when young. Bryant, in his Flora Dietetica, writes of it: ‘The young shoots in the spring, cut close to the root with part of the stalk on, is one of the best boiling salads that is eaten, and surpasses the finest cabbage. They were sometimes baked in pies. The roots may be eaten like those of Salsify.’ In some districts the leaves are called ‘Pig Leaves,’ probably because pigs like them, and the seeds are a favourite food of goldfinches.

The common statement that this bird lines its nest with thistledown is scarcely accurate, the substance being in most cases the down of Colt’s-foot (Tussilago), or the cotton down from the willow, both of which are procurable at the building season, whereas thistledown is at that time immature.

Westmacott, writing in 1694, says of this Thistle: ‘It is a Friend to the Liver and Blood: the prickles cut off, they were formerly used to be boiled in the Spring and eaten with other herbs; but as the World decays, so doth the Use of good old things and others more delicate and less virtuous brought in.’

The heads of this Thistle formerly were eaten, boiled, treated like those of the Artichoke.

There is a tradition that the milk-white veins of the leaves originated in the milk of the Virgin which once fell upon a plant of Thistle, hence it was called Our Lady’s Thistle, and the Latin name of the species has the same derivation.
Succeeds in any well-drained fertile garden soil. Prefers a calcareous soil and a sunny position. Hardy to about -15°c. The blessed thistle is a very ornamental plant that was formerly cultivated as a vegetable crop. Young plants are prone to damage from snails and slugs. Plants will often self sow freely.

Seed – if sown in situ during March or April, the plant will usually flower in the summer and complete its life cycle in one growing season. The seed can also be sown from May to August when the plant will normally wait until the following year to flower and thus behave as a biennial. The best edible roots should be produced from a May/June sowing, whilst sowing the seed in the spring as well as the summer should ensure a supply of edible leaves all year round.

Edible Uses :
Edible Parts: Flowers; Leaves; Oil; Oil; Root; Stem.
Edible Uses: Coffee; Oil; Oil.

Root – raw or cooked. A mild flavour and somewhat mucilaginous texture. When boiled, the roots resemble salsify (Tragopogon hispanicus). Leaves – raw or cooked. The very sharp leaf-spines must be removed first, which is quite a fiddly operation. The leaves are quite thick and have a mild flavour when young, at this time they are quite an acceptable ingredient of mixed salads, though they can become bitter in hot dry weather. When cooked they make an acceptable spinach substitute. It is possible to have leaves available all year round from successional sowings. Flower buds – cooked. A globe artichoke substitute, they are used before the flowers open. The flavour is mild and acceptable, but the buds are quite small and even more fiddly to use than globe artichokes. Stems – raw or cooked. They are best peeled and can be soaked to reduce the bitterness. Palatable and nutritious, they can be used like asparagus or rhubarb or added to salads. They are best used in spring when they are young. A good quality oil is obtained from the seeds. The roasted seed is a coffee substitute


The seeds of this plant are used nowadays for the same purpose as Blessed Thistle, and on this point John Evelyn wrote: ‘Disarmed of its prickles and boiled, it is worthy of esteem, and thought to be a great breeder of milk and proper diet for women who are nurses.’

It is in popular use in Germany for curing jaundice and kindred biliary derangements. It also acts as a demulcent in catarrh and pleurisy. The decoction when applied externally is said to have proved beneficial in cases of cancer.

Gerard wrote of the Milk Thistle that:
‘the root if borne about one doth expel melancholy and remove all diseases connected therewith. . . . My opinion is that this is the best remedy that grows against all melancholy diseases,’
which was another way of saying that it had good action on the liver. He also tells us:
‘Dioscorides affirmed that the seeds being drunke are a remedy for infants that have their sinews drawn together, and for those that be bitten of serpents:’and we find in a record of old Saxon remedies that ‘this wort if hung upon a man’s neck it setteth snakes to flight.’ The seeds were also formerly thought to cure hydrophobia.
Culpepper considered the Milk Thistle to be as efficient as Carduus benedictus for agues, and preventing and curing the infection of the plague, and also for removal of obstructions of the liver and spleen. He recommends the infusion of the fresh root and seeds, not only as good against jaundice, also for breaking and expelling stone and being good for dropsy when taken internally, but in addition, to be applied externally, with cloths, to the liver. With other writers, he recommends the young, tender plant (after removing the prickles) to be boiled and eaten in the spring as a blood cleanser.
A tincture is prepared by homoeopathists for medicinal use from equal parts of the root and the seeds with the hull attached.

It is said that the empirical nostrum, antiglaireux, of Count Mattaei, is prepared from this species of Thistle.

Thistles in general, according to Culpepper, are under the dominion of Jupiter.
Milk thistles have been reported to have protective effects on the liver and to improve its function. They are typically used to treat liver cirrhosis, chronic hepatitis (liver inflammation), and gallbladder disorders. The active compound in Milk thistle credited with this effect is “silymarin”, and is typically administered in amount ranging from 200-500mg per day (common Milk Thistle supplements have an 80% standardized extract of silymarin). Increasing research is being carried out into its possible medical uses and the mechanisms of such effects. However, a previous literature review using only studies with both double-blind and placebo protocols concluded that milk thistle and its derivatives “does not seem to significantly influence the course of patients with alcoholic and/or hepatitis B or C liver diseases.”

Medicinal Uses:
Silymarin is poorly soluble in water, so aqueous preparations such as teas are ineffective, except for use as supportive treatment in gallbladder disorders because of cholagogic and spasmolytic effects. The drug is best administered parenterally because of poor absorption of silymarin from the gastrointestinal tract. The drug must be concentrated for oral use.   Silymarin’s hepatoprotective effects may be explained by its altering of the outer liver cell membrane structure, as to disallow entrance of toxins into the cell.  This alteration involves silymarin’s ability to block the toxin’s binding sites, thus hindering uptake by the cell.  Hepatoprotection by silymarin can also be attributed to its antioxidant properties by scavenging prooxidant free radicals and increasing intracellular concentration of glutathione, a substance required for detoxicating reactions in liver cells.

Silymarin’s mechanisms offer many types of therapeutic benefit in cirrhosis with the main benefit being hepatoprotection. Use of milk thistle, however, is inadvisable in decompensated cirrhosis.  In patients with acute viral hepatitis, silymarin shortened treatement time and showed improvement in serum levels of bilirubin, AST and ALT.

Treatment claims also include:

1.Lowering cholesterol levels
2.Reducing insulin resistance in people with type 2 diabetes who also have cirrhosis
3.Reducing the growth of cancer cells in breast, cervical, and prostate cancers.

4.Milk thistle is also used in many products claiming to reduce the effects of a hangover.

5.Milk thistle can also be found as an ingredient in some energy drinks like the AriZona Beverage Company Green Tea energy drink and Rockstar Energy Drink.

How It Is Used:

Milk thistle is a flowering herb. Silymarin, which can be extracted from the seeds (fruit), is believed to be the biologically active part of the herb. The seeds are used to prepare capsules containing powdered herb or seed; extracts; and infusions (strong teas).

What the Science Says:
There have been some studies of milk thistle on liver disease in humans, but these have been small. Some promising data have been reported, but study results at this time are mixed.
Although some studies conducted outside the United States support claims of oral milk thistle to improve liver function, there have been flaws in study design and reporting. To date, there is no conclusive evidence to prove its claimed uses.
NCCAM is supporting a phase II research study to better understand the use of milk thistle for chronic hepatitis C. With the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, NCCAM is planning further studies of milk thistle for chronic hepatitis C and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (liver disease that occurs in people who drink little or no alcohol).
The National Cancer Institute and the National Institute of Nursing Research are also studying milk thistle, for cancer prevention and to treat complications in HIV patients.

Other Uses:
Green manure; Oil; Oil..……A good green manure plant, producing a lot of bulk for incorporation into the soil.

Known Hazards  : When grown on nitrogen rich soils, especially those that have been fed with chemical fertilizers, this plant can concentrate nitrates in the leaves. Nitrates are implicated in stomach cancers. Diabetics should monitor blood glucose when using. Avoid if decompensated liver cirrhosis. Possible headaches, nausea, irritability and minor gastrointestinal upset

The information presented herein is intended for educational purposes only. Individual results may vary, and before using any supplements, it is always advisable to consult with your own health care provider

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