Close up of a milk thistle flower with a butterfly on it

What is Milk Thistle?

The thistle flower is found all over the world. It is a very interesting flower. It is most always purple. It is actually in the same family as the Sunflower and Daisy and Dandelion.

There are many genuses and species within the family, all with that purple flower, but oddly no one seems to differentiate between them unless it is for a specific purpose that only a specific thistle can do, like the Milk Thistle for health benefits.

Most thistles belong in the Carduus, Cirsium or Onopordum genus, each of which have dozens of species. The milk thistle however because of its healthful phytochemicals is known as Silybum marianum and shares that genus with only one other species the Silybum eburneum which is not described anywhere I could find, but it must have a white flower because eburneum means white. Silybum is derived from a Greek word sillybon or silybos meaning tassel or tuft. It is now also related to the plant's active ingredients as well.

I never realized before that this family of flowers is not really flowers as we know them. They are much more biologically developed. These flowers are actually a whole colony of flowers bunched together. Every petal is an individual flower and inside the area enclosed by the petals is like a whole farm of flowers. It is technically called an achene, not a flower.

Achenes have a variety of fruit and seed arrangements. I should have noticed this before because look how many seeds you get out of one sunflower which grows from one seed. And look how many seeds there are in a strawberry which is also an achene. And how many times have I eaten a raspberry one little round piece at a time? A lot. We had raspberry bushes in my yard for my whole childhood. Boy, I was spoiled.

When an achene has some edible flesh around its seed it is called a drupe. The drupes aggregate together to form a fruit which is made of smaller fruits, like the raspberry, blackberry etc. So I ate them one drupe at a time starting from when I was a toddler. Ha Ha.

In the strawberry, the drupes have all fused together into one solid flesh.

The thistle, however, forms thistle down or pappus. Just like a dandelion, its "fruit" takes to the wind to spread to different areas.

This might not be very appetizing to us, but the thistle is extremely important to wildlife. They are a source of nectar for butterflies and bees and hummingbirds and goldfinches just love those little fruits. Also the down is used by birds to make their nests.

Close up of a milk thistle plant


Herbivores don't have too much luck though because thistles are armed to the teeth with prickles and thorns. The flower has spiky thorns all around its base, there are prickles all over its stems and the leaves have spikes on them. The more harsh and desert-like the environment is, the more spikes they have.

Thistle's Use Around the World

Despite this, humans have used thistle for food in various parts of the world with very careful preparation. No Kidding! In some places marinated and pickled thistle stems are a delicacy. Other places use the whole plant as a side dish. The various thistle plants have more vitamins and minerals than store bought vegetables. Plus, you don't have to forage much because the plants are so big. One stem can be 6 or 8 feet long. The stems have a high water content and are mildly sweet and can be eaten raw or sugared like rhubarb and the roots are refreshing with the slight taste of sweet potato.  The flowers are often used in desserts with the purple petals as a garnish.

In Greece there is a variety of thistle that has a sweet flower and is just popped into the mouth and eaten raw. Certain varieties like the bull thistle can be roasted and served as a main dish like an artichoke. And the seeds can be used to make an oil that the Native Americans turned into chewing gum. Once you get around the thorns with your trusty knife and scissors the taste of the plant is refreshing and all parts can be used. It was also used raw in salads and in stews.

Because of its thorniness the Thistle is sometimes used to express difficulty, like "We had a few thistles, but we got through it." Or the Spanish saying,"He that has a good harvest must be content with some thistles"

But farmers consider thistles the enemy. They can grow 8 feet high and have extensive root systems that can adversely affect other plants.

This is unlike in Scotland where the Thistle is greatly honored. It goes back to a battle they had in 1263 with the Norsemen. Legend has it that the Norse army was about to surprise the Scottish in their sleep under cover of darkness, but a barefooted Norseman stepped on a Thistle and his pained cry cut through the night air like an alarm and then the now alerted Scottish slaughtered them instead of getting slaughtered. This turned the tide of the whole war. After that the Thistle became the national emblem of Scotland and is depicted usually with a crown over its flowerhead. It is on their flag and also on their money.

The area of northern France particularly strategic in both world wars known as Lorraine also picked the Thistle to represent them since the Thistle is tough and survives in adverse conditions like they managed to despite being taken over by both sides back and forth.

Thistle is also the emblem of the Encyclopedia Britannica. I can't find a reference why, but my guess is that this encyclopedia has gone through its changes and survived. It used to be called the Americana. Plus it is a composite of different volumes like an achene is a composite of flowers.

There is some nice folklore about the Thistle. A vase of fresh thistle will renew the vitality of anyone in the same room. Growing it in a garden fends off thieves. Wizards made tall wands and sometimes men carried the flowers believing it would improve their lovemaking skill.

The folklore specific to the Milk Thistle gave it its name. Both English and the Latin. First of all you can always tell a milk thistle from any other thistle because it is the only one that has white lines that go along the veins of the leaves like they were highlighted with white magic marker. Legend has it that the white is actually the milk of Mary, drops of which fell onto the thistle when she was nursing Jesus on her way to Egypt to keep him safe from King Herod after an angel warned that he wanted to kill Jesus because people were referring to him as the King of the Jews, a name that Herod had been using to refer to himself for 30 years. He felt his power threatened. Marianum, the species name, refers to that story.

Background of Milk Thistle with a bottle of Herbal Roots Milk Thistle on a small round platform. Text bubbles surround the bottle that say Enhances Breast Milk Production, High in Antioxidants, 80% Standardized Silymarin and Supports Liver Health 

Benefits of Milk Thistle

Silybum mariana or milk thistle does indeed help with nursing mothers by promoting or increasing the milk flow. All these legends I mentioned are not hard to understand given the actual ability of this plant.

It has been mostly known for its healthy effects on the liver. But it also helps the kidneys. It was used to help digestion, and helped with mood and vein health and was used to beautify the skin. Also it was used to promote good sleep.

Milk thistle has been found to better estrogen metabolism by aiding the cleansing of excess estrogen from the body which helps with keeping the hormones balanced which reduces the many things experienced by women because of imbalances. In other words it helps with keeping the head and neck relaxed, prevents bloating and helps with swings in temperament and promotes good sleep.

The detoxifying effects of milk thistle have been used from the mundane hangover all the way to being the best remedy used by clinics and hospitals to potentially save people who have eaten poisonous mushrooms including the dreaded deathcap mushroom. The extract called Silymarin is injected straight into the veins in this emergency.

The subject of active ingredients in Silybum marianum is a little complicated. This is because of the chemistry involved. When molecules get big and complex you can have the exact same constituents hooked together the same way, but how it is twisted and arranged makes a compound that has a different way of reacting to other substances and has different directions of twisting and reflecting light.

These are normally named the same with additional letters to tell which form is which.

There are also forms that have a slight alteration of the pattern of how some components are hooked together even though the components are still exactly the same. In the case of silybin there is a form called isosilybin.

The extract containing all these compounds is simply called Silymarin. Since marin means sea, I think of it as the whole sea of compounds available in the plant, but it could be just a contraction of Silybus marianum too. A good concentrated extract of milk thistle has 65%-80% silymarin.

Three of the compounds making up most of silymarin are silybin, silydianin and silychristin. Silybin is the most bioactive of the three and it makes up 50% to 70% of silymarin. Although silymarin is found in the whole plant, it is most concentrated in the fruit/seeds.

Evidence suggests that it isn't just the antioxidant capabilities of the active ingredients that protect the liver but that the actual compounds participate biochemically to block toxins from the cell membranes of the liver, enhance the manufacture of protein, break down fibrin which is what hardens the liver and causes an unhealthy state and modulates immune effects including prevention of overactivity that can cause difficulty.


So this little purple wild flower is quite a natural remedy chest. It helps with everyday maintenance and should be in the remedy cabinet and first aid kit as well.

Herbal Roots Milk Thistle contains 312.5 mg of milk thistle seed extract which has an 80% standardized silymarin including all its forms, as 137.5 mg of the whole seed powder. So you get nature's recipe, only strengthened. 

Bottle of Herbal Roots Milk Thistle with capsules and Milk Thistle seeds on either side of the bottle, and a milk thistle flower on the left of the bottle.


Rosalie Roder got her Bachelors' degrees in Chemistry and Biology from Mary Baldwin University in 1983. After graduation, with that background, her real education on natural health and healing and human potential began. It is a never ending study and she is always happy to share what she has found out so far.