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Milk Thistle: A Spontaneous Plant with Healing Properties

Milk thistle, also known as blessed thistle, is a wild plant native to the Mediterranean region. Discover its botanical characteristics, healing properties, and historical significance in folk medicine.

by BioGrow

The milk thistle is a spontaneous plant found in all countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Those unfamiliar with it often consider it a weed due to its ease of reproduction and its sharp spines. However, this thistle is, in fact, a valuable medicinal plant, used since ancient times for its unquestionable phytotherapeutic properties. In addition to being a medicinal plant, it is also edible; in fact, its prickly leaves can be consumed after careful removal of the spines.

Let’s learn more about the botanical characteristics of milk thistle, discover its healing properties, and potential uses. Furthermore, we’ll explore the origins of its name, dating back to a Christian legend that has fueled its reputation over the centuries.

Botanical Identification and the Origin of the Name ‘Milk Thistle’

Milk thistle (Silybum marianum)

Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) is an herbaceous plant belonging to the extensive botanical family Asteraceae or Compositae. Other spontaneous and edible plants in this family include burdock, dandelion, and Jerusalem artichoke.
It is native to the Mediterranean region and has a long tradition in popular medicine in Italy, Spain, and Greece. Nowadays, due to its excellent properties, it is widespread worldwide and cultivated.
Its appearance is fascinating. In its rosette state, it has large, spiny leaves with white streaks creating suggestive patterns. This characteristic is closely tied to the Christian origin of its name, ‘marianum’. The legend tells of Mary, who, during her journey to Egypt, stopped in a field of thistles to nurse Jesus. She spilled some of her milk, and from that moment, the milk thistle acquired its virtues and was used in folk medicine.
Setting aside the legend, modern scientific studies have confirmed the presence of specific active compounds in the plant. One of these is silymarin.

Characteristics of Milk Thistle

Milk thistle is a biennial plant, and this information is crucial for recognizing it in different stages of its development.

First Year

Milk thistle (Silybum marianum)

In the first year, as previously mentioned, it appears as a simple rosette. This rosette consists of numerous broad leaves, pointed and covered with small, sharp spines along the entire cuticle. The larger, outer leaves can even reach a size of up to 40 cm.
The young leaves are a beautiful, bright green, striped with white on the upper surface.
The root is a taproot that grows rapidly in depth. In loose or sandy soils, it is easily uprooted. It is sufficient to be careful when inserting your hand from below and not handle the upper part of the leaves.
This plant adapts well to various types of soil. Nevertheless, when it finds the right conditions, it spreads extremely quickly.

Second Year

Flower of milk thistle

In the second year, milk thistle develops an upright, strong, and robust stem, also covered in spines. This stem can reach a height of up to 1.50 m and ends with the inflorescence.
The flower is enclosed in a head formed by sturdy bracts with spines, which open as the flower begins to bloom.
Its color is violet-purple, it is hermaphroditic, and it has the shape of a long, narrow tube.
Flowering occurs in the spring of the second year and lasts throughout the summer.
Inside the floral stalk, the seeds, oblong and narrow, develop with a slight protective fuzz.
Reproduction is simple: when the fruits mature in August, the flower opens, and with the help of the wind, the seeds disperse into the soil. The first September rains are enough to germinate the seeds and allow the plant to flourish in all its beauty.
In observing the growth of milk thistle in the field, we have noticed that it is quite popular with sheep and goats. They pay no attention to the presence of thorns and make great feasts of it.

Components of Milk Thistle

We mentioned the healing properties of milk thistle, which are primarily contained in the seeds, extensively used in both herbal and pharmaceutical fields.
The main active constituent of milk thistle is silymarin, found in a percentage of 4-6% in mature fruits (seeds). It is a substance composed mainly of three flavonolignans: silybin, silychristin, and silydianin.
Other components include lipids, in the form of linoleic, oleic, and palmitic acids.
Then there is tocopherol, sterols, essential oil. Finally, we have proteins (tyramine), mucilage, flavonoids, and tannins.

Properties of Milk Thistle

The primary activity of silymarin contained in milk thistle seeds is hepatoprotective and antioxidant. Ancient people intuited these properties and used seed extracts against indigestion. Even liver problems and intoxications, gallstones, jaundice, and spleen diseases were tackled with this plant. Modern clinical studies have confirmed the validity of these medicinal uses.
The hepatoprotective activity regulates the permeability of the cell membrane and stimulates liver regeneration.
According to some studies, silymarin can inhibit liver damage from alcohol, industrial chemicals, and psychotropic drugs. A well-known commercial drug for the treatment of liver diseases, legalon, contains this active ingredient.
It is also possible to prepare a herbal tea with milk thistle seeds and derive numerous benefits from it.

Milk Thistle Herbal Tea

Milk thistle herbal tea can be easily prepared at home, especially given the ease of collecting seeds from spontaneous plants in our area. The use of the tea is indicated for liver diseases such as cirrhosis, steatosis, acute and chronic hepatitis. It can also be used in hemorrhagic syndromes, such as nosebleeds, hemorrhoids, and metrorrhagia.
It is prepared with 10 grams of crushed seeds in a mortar to facilitate the solubilization of active constituents.
These are infused in 150 ml of water for about 10-15 minutes.
It is recommended to take it half an hour before meals, with 2-3 daily administrations.
If you do not have the opportunity to obtain milk thistle seeds, you can easily find numerous herbal preparations online.

Milk Thistle as an Edible Plant

Milk thistle is an edible plant in all its parts. However, it is particularly the tender leaves that are easier to prepare and tastier to eat.
It is best to harvest the young leaves of the plant, discarding the older and basal ones, as they are too tough and fibrous to be eaten raw. The ideal time is in the fall of the first year.
After harvesting them (wearing gloves and using a knife), they should be washed thoroughly under running water, and the central rib, too tough to be eaten raw, should be removed.
At this point, it is necessary to remove the spines from the leaf blade, cutting along the leaf with a sharp knife. Once the spines are removed, the leaf can be cut as desired and dressed with a drizzle of organic olive oil (if you don’t have it, you can find it here) and a bit of lemon.
This salad can be combined with other wild herbs of the season, such as purslane or nettle, which are still available throughout the fall. Be careful where you harvest milk thistle; it is best to avoid the edges of busy roads and places where there is a risk of pesticide use. Moreover, before harvesting, be sure of the correct identification of the species to avoid unpleasant intoxications.

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