Herb: Milk Thistle

Latin name: Silybum marianum

Synonyms: Carduus marianus

Family: Compositae

Medicinal use of Milk Thistle:

Blessed thistle has a long history of use in the West as a remedy for depression and liver problems. Recent research has confirmed that it has a remarkable ability to protect the liver from damage resulting from alcoholic and other types of poisoning. The whole plant is astringent, bitter, cholagogue, diaphoretic, diuretic, emetic, emmenagogue, hepatic, stimulant, stomachic and tonic. It is used internally in the treatment of liver and gall bladder diseases, jaundice, cirrhosis, hepatitis and poisoning. The plant is harvested when in flower and dried for later use. Silymarin, an extract from the seed, acts on the membranes of the liver cells preventing the entry of virus toxins and other toxic compounds and thus preventing damage to the cells. It also dramatically improves liver regeneration in hepatitis, cirrhosis, mushroom poisoning and other diseases of the liver. German research suggests that silybin (a flavonoid component of the seed) is clinically useful in the treatment of severe poisoning by Amanita mushrooms. Seed extracts are produced commercially in Europe. Regeneration of the liver is particularly important in the treatment of cancer since this disease is always characterized by a severely compromised and often partially destroyed liver. A homeopathic remedy is obtained from equal parts of the root and the seed with its hulls still attached. It is used in the treatment of liver and abdominal disorders.

Description of the plant:


120 cm
(4 feet)

July to

Habitat of the herb:

Waste places, usually close to the sea, especially if the ground is dry and rocky.

Edible parts of Milk Thistle:

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.

Other uses of the herb:

A good green manure plant, producing a lot of bulk for incorporation into the soil.

Propagation of Milk Thistle:

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.

Cultivation of the herb:

Waste places, usually close to the sea, especially if the ground is dry and rocky.

Known hazards of Silybum marianum:

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.

Plant information taken from the Plants For A Future.