"Natural Healing with Herbs for a Healthier You"

by John T. McCorrie
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Milk Thistle's name.


There seems to be some discretion between writers regarding the Botanical name of Milk thistle, with some saying it is Carduus marianus and others saying it is Silybum marianum.  They also suggest that there is some discretion in the use of the common name, with the area where the plant was found and where the individual lived being common factors in the name used.  Common names given to the Milk thistle include, Our Lady's thistle, Marian thistle, St Mary's thistle, Sow thistle and Wild artichoke. 

Most sources use the botanical name Silybum marianum,  with only a few using the name Carduus marianus.  Dr Rudolf Weiss, who studied botany and medicine at the University of Berlin comments on the use of the names, "Botanists now classify it as belonging to a genus different from Carduus, but pharmaceutical nomenclature still uses the old name Carduus marianus"(1).  David Hoffmann M.N.I.M.H. speaking of both the common name and the botanical name, states "The importance of botanical accuracy is highlighted here.  In different places this herb is called Milk Thistle, Mary Thistle and even Sow Thistle.  To complicate matters the botanical taxonomists have changed the binomial.  Milk Thistle is now correctly called Carduus marianum and not Silybum marianum" (2).

  The King's American Dispensatory does not distinguish between the botanical names, Carduus marianus and Silybum marianum, or between the common names of Mary thistle, Milk thistle and St Mary's thistle.  Henriette's herbal home page to which the King's American Dispensatory belongs makes mention of this after the title to which it writes it as Carduus marianus - St Mary's thistle, then proceeds, "The seeds of Carduus marianus, Linne (Cnicus marianus, Silybum marianum, Gaertner).  Nat. Ord.-Compositae.  COMMON NAMES: Mary thistle, Milk thistle, St. Mary's thistle." (3).

Mrs Grieve refers to the botanical name Carduus marianus as being the seeds of the milk thistle, she writes "The seeds of the Milk Thistle (Carduus Marianus), known also as Silybum Marianum (4).  One of the major suppliers of herbal products in the United Kingdom, Herbal Apothecary of Leicester (www.herbalapothercary.net), list Milk thistle seed as Carduus marianus in their product catalogue.

What seems to be the case is that either of the botanical names refer to the herb Milk thistle, whether it be the seeds or the whole plant.  I personally know Milk thistle as Carduus marianus through my dealings with the Herbal Apothecary.

Tradition has it the milky-white veins of the leaves originated from the milk of the virgin Mary which once fell upon a plant of the thistle, hence the names St Mary' thistle and Our Lady's thistle, and also the names marianus and marianum.




The Use Of Milk Thistle in History


Milk thistle has been used in traditional herbal medicine for a long time, with references dating back to the first century.  It is said that the Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder (AD. 23-79), wrote about the plant's juice and it's virtues of "carrying of bile", which in his time referred to a general description of any internal fluid.  Dioscorides, the Roman army Doctor used the seeds of Milk thistle as a remedy for infants and those bitten by serpents.  Mrs Grieve uses Gerard's quotation of Dioscorides use of the herb, she writes " 'Dioscorides affirmed that the seeds being drunke are a remedy for infants that have their sinews drawn together, and for those that be bitten of serpents:' " (5).  Gerard himself used the herb and was of the opinion that it was the best remedy for all melancholy diseases, which physicians at the time considered a liver complaint.  Gerard's writing is quoted by Mrs Grieve who writes "Gerard wrote of the Milk Thistle that -        'the root if borne about one doth expel melancholy and remove all diseases connected therewith…. My opinion is that this is the best remedy that grows against all melancholy diseases,' " (6).

Culpepper, the famous British herbalist who practised half a century later, used the name Our Lady's thistle instead of Milk thistle.  He recommended its use in the treatment of disorders affecting the liver and spleen, the kidney's in provoking the flow of urine, to break and expel stones and also to treat dropsy.  He considered Milk thistle to be as effective as the Holy thistle, Carduus Benedictus, for agues and the opening of obstructions in the liver, as well as being a excellent blood cleanser.  He writes, "It cleanses the blood exceedingly: and in spring, if you please to boil the tender plant (but cut off the prickles unless you have mind to choak yourself) it will change your blood as the season changes, and that is the way to be safe." (7).  Culpepper suggests that thistles in general were under the dominion of Jupiter.

The Milk thistle was also used by the Saxons as a remedy to ward snakes.  The seeds were used by the Saxons as a remedy to cure the infectious disease contracted by a man who was bitten by a rabid animal known nowadays as hydrophobia.  Mrs Grieve states "we find in a record of old Saxon remedies that 'this wort if hung upon a man's neck it setteth snakes to flight.' " (8).

On the subject of Milk thistle being as effective as the Holy thistle, it is said that the Milk thistle is a breeder of milk and of help to nursing mothers.  Mrs Grieve quotes a John Evelyn who wrote " 'Disarmed of its prickles and boiled, it is worthy of esteem, and thought to be a great breeder of milk and proper diet for women who are nurses.' " (9).

The leaves and stalks of the Milk thistle were at one time used in salads, soups and pies, with the leaves surpassing the finest of cabbage.  The heads were also eaten, in most cases they were boiled and treated like those of the Artichoke.

By the 19th century Milk thistle was recommended and used by German physicians for the treatment of liver and blood problems, as well as for intestinal cleansing.  Formerly regarded as a bitter, the herb gained recognition as one of the best remedies for liver complaints.    It was the seeds that were found to contain the active principle that has the specific effect on the liver.  A German physician of the early 19th century called Rademacher gave his patients a tincture made from the seeds.  It was said to be successful with his tincture "Tinctura Cardui Mariae Rademacher" still listed in pharmacopoeias today.

More recently, studies on the Milk thistle have shown that it has a role of protection regarding the liver.  Scientists in Germany, where most of the research has been done, noticed that it seemed to protect the livers of animals from poisoning with highly toxic carbon tetrachloride.  The particular active ingredient that protects the liver was isolated and its chemical constitution established, a previously unknown flavonol, that was given the name silymarin.  No other plant principle has been as extensively investigated in recent years as silmarin, with further studies showing that it is effective in the treatment of a number of disorders affecting the liver. Cirrhosis, deathcap mushroom poisoning, all types of hepatitis, gallstones, occupational toxic chemical exposure and skin disease all showing positive results under tests.

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