Milk thistle is a weedy annual or biennial plant in the Asteraceae family native the Mediterranean and Kashmir, but grows wild throughout Europe, California, and Australia, found typically in rocky soils. It’s easily recognized by it’s large, solitary and spiky purple flower heads ringed with spiny bracts that bloom during the summer, maturing into beige tufts of seeds in the late summer. It has a grooved, branching, shiny brown stem that can grow quite tall, with alternate, smooth dark green leaves with a white midrib and markings. The leaves are spiny with scalloped margins, and the upper leaves are sessile and clasp the stem. When broken, the stem and leaves ooze a white, milk sap. It typically prefers full sun, moderate temperatures, and well drained rocky soils.
Seeds, dried leaves and flower heads, entire plant is edible
The active ingredient in milk thistle, silymarin, is highly concentrated in the seeds and acts by protecting the liver, helping it to maintain healthy function and bile secretion while preventing damage from compounds that would normally be highly toxic. It also benefits the gall bladder by increasing the flow of bile. In Germany, milk thistle is commonly used to treat hepatitis, jaundice, and liver cirrhosis. Studies have also shown that severe liver breakdown, for example from ingestion of death cap mushrooms, might be prevented if silymarin is taken immediately before or within 48 hours of ingestion. These studies are not proven, so please do not ingest death cap mushrooms with intent to antidote with milk thistle, you will most likely die. Milk thistle is also useful to help the liver in times of stress from infection, excess alcohol, or chemotherapy, where it can help limit damage and speed recovery time and regeneration. It will also increases breast milk production for nursing mothers, and is a natural anti-depressant. The leaves are useful for indigestion and dyspepsia. Milk thistle also aids psoriasis and other skin conditions by assisting the liver in its natural elimination processes.
The flower heads of milk thistle were traditionally boiled and eaten like artichokes as a spring tonic to revitalize the body with vitamins and minerals after a vegetable-deprived winter; their anti-depressant actions also helped transition out of winter. The leaves can also be boiled and eaten, and are often recommended as a wild food for backpackers with a taste similar to spinach. In Ancient Greece, milk thistle was used as a antidote for snakebite, and the Roman naturalist Pliny noted milk thistle’s ability to “carry off bile”. By the 16th century, physicians were using it to treat jaundice. Early American eclectic physicians used milk thistle for a variety of liver complaints, as well as kidney problems and menstrual issues. Milk thistle is toxic to cattle and sheep.
Flavor Profile and Energetics
Bitter, nutritive, sweet, cooling
An infusion of 1 teaspoon of dried leaves per cup of water, steeped for 10-15 minutes, taken three times daily. As a tincture, 1-2 ml three times daily. The chemical constituents of the seeds are not very water soluble, so most infusions are not very high in silymarin. Grind the seeds and take in capsules or add to food.
For a liver tonic, it combines well with dandelion root, burdock root, ginger root and parsley root.
(s) 1, 4, 10, 12, 15