Herbs for Health: Milk Thistle For Liver Disease

| August/September 1995

Milk thistle (Silybum marianum), native to the Mediterranean region and southwestern Europe, has been widely cultivated for centuries as a culinary, medicinal, or ornamental plant. It is now naturalized throughout much of the European continent and South America. In ­California and Australia, the plant has become a common weed.(1)

As a medicinal herb, this prickly member of the sunflower family (Compositae) has been associated with the liver for at least 2000 years. The Roman physician and naturalist Pliny the Elder (a.d. 23–79) wrote about its use as a vegetable and mentioned that the juice, mixed with honey, was excellent for carrying off bile.(2) This is the first known reference to the use of milk thistle for liver disorders.

In her herbal Physica (circa 1150), Hildegard of Bingen (see June/July 1995 issue) wrote that milk thistle, which she called “Venus thistle”, was an effective treatment for tumors and the streptococcal disease erysipelas.(3)

At the time that Gerard’s Herball was first published, in 1597, milk thistle was being grown in English gardens and had become a weed in the countryside. Gerard extolled it as the best remedy against “melancholy” (liver-related) diseases.(4)

Milk Thistle: The Plant

Milk thistle’s generic name, Silybum, comes from the first-century Greek physician, Dioscorides, who applied the name to several other edible thistles as well. Its species name, marianum, means “of (the Virgin) Mary”. In Germany, where the plant is often depicted as a religious symbol associated with the Virgin Mary, the characteristic white mottling of the leaf veins is said to represent Mary’s milk.(5)

The stout, branching annual or biennial grows from 3 to 7 feet tall. The alternate, white-mottled, smooth, shiny, scalloped leaves serve as a tender and palatable salad herb when young, but they soon develop stiff spines on the margins. Solitary purple flower heads, up to 21/2 inches in diameter, appear in early summer above outward-spreading, spiny bracts. In nineteenth-century Europe, the roots were baked in vegetable pies; the young flower stalks were peeled, soaked in water to remove the bitter milky latex, then cooked and eaten like asparagus; and the fleshy unopened flower receptacles were boiled and eaten like artichokes.(6)

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