Name: Milk thistle (Silybum marianum)
Otherwise known as: Blessed Thistle, Holy Mary’s Thistle
Habitat: A prickly biennial member of the Asteraceae family growing to 1.5m on barren or waste soil and native to the Mediterranean region. It displays the white, stained, spiky leaves the length of the stem which is topped by the red/purple flower case that contains the seeds.
What does it do: It takes its name from the white staining on the leaves which is attributed to the milk of the Virgin Mary, hence its alternative names. Originally associated with aiding the production of milk in nursing mothers, it is now recognised for its hepatic protecting properties.
Gerard, writing in 1597, claimed…. ‘my opinion is that this is the best remedy that grows against all melancholy diseases.’
The plant may be seen with its flowers growing alongside roads and tracks all over Cyprus in early summer, the heads then turn into the familiar thistle-down that carry the seeds on the winds of late summer. It is this delicate tiny seed, as well as the fruit and leaves, that contain the chemical silymarin, that plays such an important role in protecting and repairing the liver.
It is interesting to note that the discovery of the plant’s healing properties arose not from extensive medical research but from empirical evidence arising from folk medical claims for its efficacy in the treatment of liver disorders in Germany.
The plant has been used for centuries in Germany as a cure for jaundice and a treatment for mushroom poisoning. The death-cap mushroom contains two of the most destructive liver-damaging substances known: amanitin and phalloidin. Ingestion of this mushroom causes severe damage to the liver and proves fatal in approximately 30% of cases. Silymarin administered immediately after poisoning completely counteracted the toxic effect, and given within 24 hours, greatly reduced the amount of liver damage.
Probably the most important function of silymarin is in the treatment of alcohol induced liver damage resulting in cirrhosis. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of silymarin is to stimulate protein synthesis resulting in the production of new liver cells to replace the old damaged ones, and at the same time not stimulating malignant cells.
Milk thistle is given to protect the liver from the effects of chemotherapy. It is also thought to be a preventive against the formation of gall stones by its ability to increase the solubility of bile.
The young shoots and leaves can be eaten and the base of the flower-head tastes just like artichoke.
Alexander McCowan is author of The World’s most Dangerous Plants