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Milk thistle

Category: Medicines - plant based



Introduction and description


Silybum marianum is also called cardus marianus, milk thistle, blessed milk thistle, Marian thistle, Mary thistle, Saint Mary's thistle, Mediterranean milk thistle and variegated thistle.

Milk Thistle is an annual or biennial plant of the Asteraceae family. It has red to purple flowers and shiny pale green leaves with white veins. Originally a native of Southern Europe through to Asia, it is now found throughout the world.

 The Silybum species as a whole is native to the Mediterranean regions of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East; of all the Silybum species, the most widespread species is Silybum marianum.  The plants in this group include:

  • Silybum eburneum Coss. & Dur., known as the Silver Milk Thistle, Elephant Thistle, or Ivory Thistle - Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Spain
  • Silybum eburneum Coss. & Dur. var. hispanicum
  • Silybum marianum (L.) Gaertner, the Blessed Milk Thistle, which has a large number of other common names,

The existence of the two species needs to be known as Silybum ebureum may not have the same properties as Silybum marianum.  Furthermore, the two hybridise naturally, the hybrid being known as Silybum × gonzaloi Cantó, Sánchez Mata & Rivas Mart. (S. eburneum var. hispanicum x S. marianum).  Again not enough research has been done to establish the effects of this hybridisation.


Despite the confusing descriptions on some websites and sadly in Wikipedia, Silybum marianum is a different plant to both the Holy Thistle [cnicus] and the Scotch Thistle [onopordon] and has different properties and uses medicinally, although certain properties are shared by all three.  Scotch Thistle and Milk Thistle, for example, are edible and looked on by some outdoor types as ‘bush food’, whereas the Holy Thistle is not.

Thistle is the old English name - essentially the same in all kindred languages - for a large family of plants occurring chiefly in Europe and Asia, of which we have fourteen species in Great Britain, arranged under the botanical groups Carduus, Carlina, Onopordon and Carbenia, or Cnicus.


Milk thistle grows 30 to 200 cm tall, having an overall conical shape with an approx. 160 cm max. diameter base.

The erect stem is tall, branched and furrowed or grooved, but not spiny. The stem is more or less cottony. With the largest specimens the stem is hollow.

The leaves are oblong to lanceolate. They are either lobate or pinnate and hairless, shiny green, with milk-white veins.  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.


The flower heads are 4 to 12 cm long and wide, of red-purple colour. They flower from June to August in the North or December to February in the Southern Hemisphere (Summer through Autumn ).  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 bracts are hairless, with triangular, spine-edged appendages, tipped with a stout yellow spine.

The achenes are black, with a simple long white pappus, surrounded by a yellow basal ring.

Mrs Grieve describes the Milk Thistle as “a fine, tall plant, about the size of the Cotton Thistle, with cut into root-leaves, waved and spiny at the margin, of a deep, glossy green, with milk-white veins”.  She also notes that “it is found not uncommonly in hedgebanks and on waste ground, especially by buildings, which causes some authorities to consider that it may not be a true native. In Scotland it is rare”.



Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) is said to originate from the mountains of the Mediterranean region, where it forms scrub on a rocky base.  According to Mrs Grieve it may also have been a native of the coast of southeast England, although given its food value and medicinal uses, it may also have been introduced there by, for example, the Romans.

The Milk Thistle has been widely introduced outside its natural range, for example into North America, Iran, Australia and New Zealand where it is considered an invasive weed.   It is widespread across much of Europe, Asia, and North Africa from Norway and the Canary Islands to China and Maluku; and has become naturalized in Australia, New Zealand and  the Americas.


Historically Milk Thistle was used both for its attractive appearance and its medicinal value.

This handsome plant is not unworthy of a place in our gardens and shrubberies and was formerly frequently cultivated” [Mrs Grieve].  The plant is still sometimes used as a decorative element in gardens, and its dried flower heads are used for the decoration of dry bouquets.


The medicinal value of the plant has been known for millenia. The liver-protective effects, for example, were known and written about in ancient times.  The known medicinal properties led to  active chemical, pharmacological, and safety research in Germany in the 1950s and there is now a prosperous section of the agricultural community who grow this plant for its medicinal value.

Cultivated fields for the production of the raw material for the pharmaceutical industry exist on a large scale in Austria (Waldviertel region), Germany, Hungary, Poland, China and Argentina. In Europe it is sown yearly in March–April. The harvest in two steps (cutting and threshing) takes place in August, about 2–3 weeks after the flowering.

For many centuries extracts of milk thistle were used  as "liver tonics"  used to treat liver cirrhosis, chronic hepatitis (liver inflammation) and  toxin-induced liver damage.  One of the older and more intriguing shamanic uses was the prevention of severe liver damage from Amanita phalloides ('death cap' mushroom poisoning), when the shaman got the wrong mushroom!

The name "milk thistle" derives from a feature of the leaves, which are prominently banded with splashes of white. Historically, these milky bands were said to be Mother Mary's milk, and this is the origin of another common name, St. Mary's thistle.

Medicinal uses


Westmacott, writing in 1694, says of this Thistle: 'It is a Friend to the Liver and Blood” and most of the other herbals of this time support this view.  In effect, it is possible that as a whole – taking all the constituents together – the plant has anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-viral and anti-parasitic action. 

It also appears to have some ability to remove toxins.  It is occasionally used as a hangover cure and Silybum marianum is used in traditional Chinese medicine to “clear heat and relieve toxic material”, to soothe the liver and to promote bile flow.  We could find no papers about its ability as a chelating agent, it would be helpful if research was done in this area as the problem of heavy metal poisoning is very widespread.

As the liver is one of the main organs used to cleanse the blood Silybum marianum is sometimes prescribed by herbalists to help treat liver diseases (cirrhosis, jaundice and hepatitis).

Both in vitro and animal research suggest that Silibinin (syn. silybin, sylimarin I) may have hepatoprotective (antihepatotoxic) properties that protect liver cells against toxins.


Since some forms of cancer are caused by bacteria, parasites, fungi, toxins, and viruses, Milk Thistle has been used to help here.  It will, of course sometimes help and sometimes not, simply because it depends on the parasites, fungi, toxins, viruses and the bacteria doing the attacking – Milk Thistle is not a general cure-all, it only acts against certain pathogens, thus to know whether it will help, you need to know which pathogens are attacking you and which pathogens Milk Thistle is good for.

The medicinal uses of Milk Thistle have been explored by the scientific research community.  Sadly, the pharmaceutical industry have examined the properties of each of its chemical constituents and then made drugs of often single constituents, [for which people have to pay].  There is considerable evidence [see observations] that it is the combination of the various chemicals that is key to the medicinal efficacy of Milk Thistle and as such the drugs - being high dosage and of perhaps only one chemical, - may be doing more harm than good.

Wikipedia says that “clinical studies are largely heterogeneous and contradictory” and the reason for this is that the plant is not tested, only the drug; that the cause[s] of the illnesses of the people in the trials is never investigated, as such it may work or it may not depending on the pathogen; and furthermore there appears to be some rather bizarre view that the higher the dose the greater the efficacy, meaning that in some trials the people are probably actually being poisoned.

In trials, silymarin has typically been administered in amounts ranging from 420–480 mg per day in two to three divided doses [sic]. However, higher doses have been studied [sic!], such as 600 mg daily [!] in the treatment of type II diabetes, and 600 or 1200 mg daily in patients chronically infected with hepatitis C virus without significant results.

The plant of course has the correct dosage and it is unlikely you would overdose by eating a meal of Milk Thistle!

Traditional milk thistle extract is made from only from the seeds, again this only ensures that most of the plants beneficial effects are removed.  The seeds contain approximately 4–6% silymarin and very often the resultant 'medicine' contains only this chemical. Overall our chemists have done us no favours by what they have done.

Culinary uses

Milk thistle wraps

Most of this plant is edible and apparently delicious; ultimately eating it as a vegetable may be the best way to heal yourself.  It is worth noting that animals and birds like this plant too.  In some districts the leaves are called 'Pig Leaves,' probably because pigs like them, and the seeds are a favourite food of goldfinches.

Leaves - The leaves may be eaten as a salad when young. Later as the leaves mature they can be boiled.  The leaves, once trimmed of prickles and boiled, make a good spinach substitute both in flavour and for their iron content.  Westmacott, writing in 1694, says of this Thistle: “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.”

Stalks - The stalks, like those of most of our larger Thistles, may be eaten, and are palatable and nutritious. The stems must be peeled and if they are old [young stalks can be eaten raw or cooked]  can be soaked overnight to remove bitterness and then stewed.  Bryant, in his Flora Dietetica, writes that: 'They were sometimes baked in pies”.

Shoots - The young shoots in spring can be cut down to the root and boiled and buttered.

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.’

Roots - The roots can be eaten raw or boiled and buttered or par-boiled and roasted.  Bryant, again, in his Flora Dietetica, writes of it: 'The roots may be eaten like those of Salsify.'

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


from Penny's site called Penniless parenting


You're awfully busy, but you get the itch to forage again. So you go with your boys to the abandoned lot across the street and pick some milk thistle. You also forage some mallow as well. For supper, you serve a salad made with milk thistle and cukes and tomatoes and a dressing made with your homemade mayo and some organic passionfruit that a neighbor grew but had too many of, so passed them on to you.
Along with that, you make a soup made with foraged mallow, more milk thistle, some potatoes, and a radish  (that you got from someone in the community who got so many veggies from her husband's work that they were coming out of her ears). Along with that, you serve a raw beet salad (made with loss leader beets and grapefruit) . The food was very much enjoyed by all.



Dr Duke’s analysis

Dr Duke’s phytochemical database provides a comprehensive list of the chemicals in Milk Thistle. His analysis lists all the chemicals, the list shown below derived from his list excludes those chemicals with no stated activity.  A number of the chemicals in the plant are stated to be:

  • liver protective – for example, 3-Deoxysilychristin, Apigenin, Silandrin, Silybin, Silychristin,  Silydiadin, Silymarin, Silymonin, Taxifolin, plus many more
  • antifungal – as well as being  Antivaginitic and a Candidicide, for example, aluminium; Kaempferol;  Linoleic-acid a Candidicide and Fungicide , Quercertin, Taxifolin, Tyramine
  • anti-parasitic chemicals – for example, Aluminium, Eriodictyol, Kaempferol, Linoleic-acid, Palmitic-acid, Quercertin; Taxifolin, Tyramine
  • anti-bacterial – for example Apigenin, Eriodictyol, Kaempferol, Linoleic-acid, Quercertin, Silymonin
  • anti-viral – for example Chrysoeriol, Kaempferol; Linoleic-acid is both Antiherpetic and  AntiHIV; Silymonin ; Taxifolin ; Quercertin is antiflu and antiHIV as well as an antiviral as a whole
  • toxin chelation – for example, Kaempferol, Naringenin, Quercertin
  • skin healer - One chemical Fumaric acid found in the leaf has considerable potential to help with skin problems as it is Antidermatitic and Antipsoriac. Yet another Linoleic-acid  is anti-acne and antieczemic.  Quercerton is also anti-dermatitic and anti-psoriac.  The balance of the chemicals is absolutely key.

Quercertin is an exceptionally important part of the plant and has shown  Analgesic; Antiallergic; Antianaphylactic; Antiarthritic ; Antiasthmatic; Anticataract; Antidepressant; Antileishmanic; Antileukemic; Antimalarial ; Antipancreatitic; Antiperiodontal; Antipolio; and Antitumour [in general] activity

Chemicals and their Biological Activities in: Silybum marianum (L.) GAERTN. (Asteraceae) -- Lady's Thistle, Milk Thistle


ALUMINUM Plant 267 ppm;


BETA-CAROTENE Plant 31 ppm; Vitamin A

CALCIUM Plant 6,460 ppm; Calcium

CHROMIUM Plant 22 ppm;


COBALT Plant 41 ppm; Cobalt




IRON Plant 1,060 ppm; Iron



MAGNESIUM Plant 4,030 ppm; Magnesium

MANGANESE Plant 147 ppm; Manganese




PHOSPHORUS Plant 7,060 ppm; Phosphorus

POTASSIUM Plant 8,330 ppm; Potassium


SELENIUM Plant: Selenium






SILYMARIN Seed 7,000 ppm;


SODIUM Plant: Sodium



TIN Plant 42 ppm;


ZINC Plant 33 ppm; Zinc



Related observations