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Historical Uses of Milk Thistle (Silybum Marianum)

Updated on December 23, 2014
GoodLady profile image

Penelope has lived the Italian country life for decades learning from local people about their lands and produce and how to survive and cook

The Drying Flower of the Milk Thistle Plant in Tuscany

The drying flower of the Milk Thistle plant
The drying flower of the Milk Thistle plant | Source

Crown of Thorns

Crown of thorns on Jesus Head in a circular weave (from a church in Oaxaca Mexico).
Crown of thorns on Jesus Head in a circular weave (from a church in Oaxaca Mexico). | Source

Jesus' Crown of Thorns

The ground is scorched dry, yellow and blistering where I live in Maremma Tuscany. It is parched like the dry lands of the Middle East (with global warming). The driveway to our farmhouse kicks up dust which lands on struggling blackberry plants, the leaves of oak trees and olive trees and onto resisting clusters of tall spindly wild thistle (Sylibum Mariano).

On a recent horse and carriage trip through the Natural Park of the Maremma, our guide told us all about this formidable plant, the Milk Thistle (or in Italian 'il Cardo Mariano'). His stories turn around and around in my mind. Its resilience and its uses are fascinating, as is the story of the hardy Maremma people.

If you ask a very old farmer's wife how they survived their immense poverty of the last century she will tell you how resourceful they were making use of what little they had for food, for agriculture and for medicine. She will tell you reverentially what an essential part that 'Milk Thistle' or (cardo mariano as they call it here) played in that life -

  • not just as a curative plant,
  • not just for its resisting beauty,
  • not just because it has had many practical uses which this article will tell you about

but because

  • they believe here in Maremma that this thorny prickle wove the crown that was Jesus' Crown of Thorns.

Milk Thistle (Cardo Mariano) in Maremma Italy

Milk Thistle, (Cardo Mariano) or Sylibum Marianum in our fields in Maremma
Milk Thistle, (Cardo Mariano) or Sylibum Marianum in our fields in Maremma | Source

Uses of Milk Thistle as Fencing

The plant can grow to six feet and have branches that can grow to about four feet.

In Maremma this tall robust Milk Thistle was woven to make miles of fencing to divide lands up into fields to keep cattle from roaming - and make it harder for hungry foxes and marauding wild boar to get around, (since fence posts would have be too expensive).

The potassium nitrate content makes the plant very toxic to cattle and sheep.

Now fencing is made with the wood of sturdy oak trees growing here - "the oak trees from which wood was cut to make Italian railroads" I was told.

A Modern Herbal

A Modern Herbal (Volume 1, A-H): The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folk-Lore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs & Trees with Their Modern Scientific Uses
A Modern Herbal (Volume 1, A-H): The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folk-Lore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs & Trees with Their Modern Scientific Uses

Medical texts by Culpepper Gerard and Westmacott recommended milk thistle seeds and leaves which Maud Green mentions in this book of herbs.

 

Benefits of Milk Thistle for Health

The root of the plant was boiled to cure liver diseases. In fact herbalist Westmacott, 1694 said of it that "It's a friend to the liver and blood". His associate Culpepper said it cured infections like the plague and was a good remedy for removing liver and spleen obstructions. Our guide in the Maremma Nature Park explained that it was an effective 'purge', that the women would boil the roots for a 'tisane' for ailments that needed cleansing from the body.

In fact when I visited my local herb shop, the local herbalist said - looking at me with intent - that it is indeed very effective.

I can only imagine it must be one powerful laxative!

Milk Thistle Benefits

Milk Thislte Benefits.  The seeds in a local herb shop
Milk Thislte Benefits. The seeds in a local herb shop | Source

How to Take Milk Thistle

You can make a tea by either-

1. Grinding a few tablespoons of the seed in your coffee grinder

2. Boil for ten minutes

3. Strain.

Or

1. Boiling a few tablespoons of the seeds for ten minutes

2. Letting seep for half an hour

3. Strain

You might like to flavor your tea with honey or mint or both!

Milk Thistle Health Benefits and Properties

The herbalist pulled out her books and read when to use Milk Thistle as a cure. I'm not a herbalist or a doctor but I believe the old lady of the Maremma and the contents of our local herbalists book ('my bible' she calls it) - and what I read on the internet - that the seeds, oils and leaves of Silybum Marianum are capable of helping to cure many ailments related to the liver and also to the heart -

Oil of milk thistle:

- tonic

- laxative

- gastric stimulant

Some exaples when to use:

- hemorrhoids

- hypochondria

- cirrhosis of the liver

Seeds

(have the same affect as the spurs of rye)

- Act as a tonic for the heart stimulating the kidneys and veins.

Some examples when to use the seeds:

- hypertension

- toning of the heart's functions.

- very effective in reducing cholesterol


Milk Thistle Seeds Once Made Coffee in the Maremma

Milk thistle seeds at the herbalist
Milk thistle seeds at the herbalist | Source

Maremma Tuscany Use of Milk Thistle - Coffee

The Maremma was a very poor part of Tuscany. It's lands weren't fully reclaimed from being malarial swamps until the second decade of the nineteenth century when Mussolini finished draining all the lands - that local Dukes had begun draining two hundred years previously.

Food of all sorts was scarce to this country of peat makers, pine nut gleaners, and the occasional shepherd.

Instead of coffee, the people of the Maremma made their morning coffee from the ground dried seeds of the Mariano thistle.

No wonder they have great respect for this Milk Thistle.

The ground is scorched dry, yellow and blistering where I live in Maremma Tuscany. It is parched like the dry lands of the East. The driveway to our farmhouse kicks up dust which lands on struggling blackberry plants, the leaves of oak trees and olive trees and onto resisting clusters of tall spindly wild thistle (Silybum Mariano).

On a recent horse and carriage trip through the Natural Park of the Maremma, our guide told us all about this formidable plant. His stories haunt me. Now, as I drive through our arid landscape seeing this spindly gold thistle by the side of the road in bare contrast with the yellow golden of the land I reflect on how hardy the Maremma people were a century ago.

© 2012 Penelope Hart

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    • GoodLady profile imageAUTHOR

      Penelope Hart 

      6 years ago from Rome, Italy

      Yes, I was intrigued too It may well have been this thistle. It's a weird thought isn't it? Thanks for your interest and comment.

    • GiblinGirl profile image

      GiblinGirl 

      6 years ago from New Jersey

      Really fascinating hub. I've never heard of milk thistle before, but I was really intrigued that it was thought to be used in Jesus' crown of thorns.

    • GoodLady profile imageAUTHOR

      Penelope Hart 

      6 years ago from Rome, Italy

      Hello travmaj (are you Marjorie as my mother is?). Yes our older people knew much about how to use plants. I'm fortunate to live in a rural area of Tuscany where this kind of knowledge is still being passed down. The older folk here taught me lots.

    • GoodLady profile imageAUTHOR

      Penelope Hart 

      6 years ago from Rome, Italy

      Wondering how it was used in other countries of our world? In USA, Australia? It's fascinating that this weed is so useful. Thanks so much for your appreciated comment.

    • travmaj profile image

      travmaj 

      6 years ago from australia

      how interesting - milk thistle is such a versatile plant - there must be so many more that became - well - unfashionable. I remember growing up in England and elderly neighbours out and about picking plants to use for various remedies -I took it all for granted. Now, I wish I knew.

      Thanks for this -

    • GoodLady profile imageAUTHOR

      Penelope Hart 

      6 years ago from Rome, Italy

      This is true. We've all been created for one reason or another! Thanks for superb comment.

    • wilderness profile image

      Dan Harmon 

      6 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      Once more it is rubbed in our face that nearly every plant, animal and mineral on earth is valuable in some way or another.

      A most interesting hub, GoodLady - thank you.

    • GoodLady profile imageAUTHOR

      Penelope Hart 

      6 years ago from Rome, Italy

      Natashalh. It's amazing. All those years I looked at it as though it was a weed, but instead it is a noble grass! Thanks for kind comment.

    • Natashalh profile image

      Natasha 

      6 years ago from Hawaii

      Interesting. I'd heard milk thistle was useful, but I didn't know how useful! Fences, beverages, medicines - wow. It's amazing how many simple 'weeds' are actually quite healthful and useful. Thanks for yet another informative hub!

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