Home » Milk Thistle: Plant Description

Milk Thistle: Plant Description

We got used to the statement that the Chinese are the most experienced and wise herbalists. Traditional Chinese medicine is and has always been treated as the most reliable and effective means for curing almost all diseases known to the human kind.

Surprisingly, the herb milk thistle is far more popular and well-known in the Old World. Europeans have developed ancient traditions of using milk thistle both in medicine and as a vegetable.

The matter is that Silybum marianum (the botanical name for milk thistle) is native to the Mediterranean region of Europe. It is a sort of thistles from the genus Silybum Adans. Sometimes people treat the plant as a weed, which, however, is the potent medicinal herb.

Milk thistle (other names are Holy thistle, Marian Thistle, Our Lady’s thistle, Wild Artichoke) is a tall plant (generally 2-5 feet high, sometimes – up to 10 feet) with an erect, branched and furrowed but not spiny stem. It has large, thorny green root-leaves, which are attached to the stem without petiole; the upper leaves have a clasping base.

The characteristic feature of the plant’s leaves is that they have milk-white veins. The ancient legend says that it was Virgin Mary’s milk that dropped onto the leaves and left white traces. That is why people believe that the herb has lactation improving abilities, therefore, is good for use by nursing mothers.

The flowers of milk thistle are red-purple and spiky; the small black shiny seeds are crowned with feathery tufts, which make it easy for the plant to spread in a field or a garden. Each flower-head produces about 190 seeds, harvested mostly in July or August. They remain viable for 9 (!) years.

The plant prefers well-drained soils and much sunlight, though it can also stand harsher conditions. Strange as it may seem, milk thistle needs some cold temperatures to produce more flowers; therefore, European climate is perfect for it.

For more than two thousand years milk thistle has been cultivated throughout Europe, but it was always especially popular in Greece, Italy, and Germany. Our ancestors used this herb for treating liver, kidney, spleen, and gallbladder diseases. They also healed serpents bites and mushroom poisoning with the plant preparations. Moreover, the tinctures were applied externally to the liver area to promote its protection and to the skin surface for relieving skin conditions.

Usually teas and tinctures were made of milk thistle seeds (when roasted they were used as coffee substitutes), but the whole plant was consumed as a vegetable: young stems and leaves were either boiled or eaten raw as salads.

During the last years the use of milk thistle is tested by multiple scientific studies, conducted mainly in Germany. The German Health Authorities (equivalent to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) founded a special Commission E, which is supposed to develop the rules (dosages, indications, and contraindications) of milk thistle preparations usage to promote the best health benefits.

Nowadays the plant becomes more familiar to the American consumers, too, gaining their confidence and trust in its power and health benefits. Since milk thistle is easy to grow, it is already cultivated in many states throughout the country.

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