MILK THISTLE, Silybum marianum

Milk Thistle (medicinal herb)

Back around the times of the Greeks and Romans, a young general became king. Though he was now a king, he still liked to lead his army. He loved to hang out with the troops and drink toasts to deeds of honor and courage and to heroes. As a young man, his drinking did not bother his health too much. However, as he got older, all of this drinking seemed to make him turn a little yellow and he developed a pain under his right rib. As a king, he figured he did not have to put up with a hurt under his right rib and he did not like the idea of turning yellow either.

One day, he called in the court physicians and the doctors of his army and told them about his liver problem. He told them if they did not find any solution to his problem right away, they would be hung up by their thumbs. Now if a doctor does not like one thing, it is to be hung up by his thumbs.

The doctors got together and boiled up some seeds from a milk thistle and gave it to the king. Within a short while, the king felt much better, thanks to the milk thistle. Once he took milk thistle tea, and controlled his drinking, he felt much better.
Besides being a good liver tonic, mothers found this herb was also good for milk lactation. Some folks said that while the Virgin Mary was nursing the baby Jesus, a drop of her milk fell on a milk thistle leaf. That is why the veins of the leaf look so white. The tea became important to nursing mothers, and to wet nurses, to increase their milk.

Milk thistles sometimes grow to a height of more than six feet. They can be annual or biennial. The dark, glossy, green leaves are large and coarse with scalloped edges. Or the leaves might have deep-cut lobes and wavy margins or edges. The spines of the leaves are white and become sharp stickers along the margins. The blossoms are a pinkish purple and bloom in late may and June. The flower head is about two inches across and contains small hairs that seeds are attached to. Throughout the ages, milk thistle has been grown as a medicinal plant for many different ailments. In Europe, and in some parts of this country, the milk thistle is grown on farms and the seeds are harvested for their medicinal value. However, around some homes, milk thistle is cultivated, both as a flower to decorate a garden and as a vegetable for culinary purposes. For centuries, the thistle was used a s a poor man’s garden vegetable. In his flora dietetica, Bryant wrote: “The young shoots in the spring, cut close to the root with part of the stalk on, is one of the best boiling salads that is eaten, and surpasses the finest cabbage. They were sometimes eaten as pies. The roots can be eaten like salsify.”
Most ancient herbalists praised milk thistle. Culpepper said that milk thistle was important in preventing and curing the infection of the plague and for removing obstructions of the liver and spleen. He recommended a tea from the fresh roots and seeds for jaundice, and for breaking and expelling stones, and for dropsy. He said, “Remove the prickles and boil and eat the whole plant as a salad for a good blood cleanser.”

In Europe today, milk thistle is the main cure for liver problems. It contains a chemical substance, silymarin, which has a dramatic regenerative effect on the liver by stimulating the growth of new cells. Silymarin also increases the abilities of both red blood cells and liver cells to eliminate damaging free radicals. Tests have shown that silymarin is a great anti-oxidant that helps to detoxify the body. Some folks say that silymarin, or thislyn, can even lower cholesterol.

Never in the history of man have we had so many pollutants in our air and so many toxins all around us, which makes milk thistle a very valuable antioxidant herb, which can be purchased in health food stores. Even though we do little research into herbs in this country, we are fortunate that Europe does so much and that we are able to share that knowledge.

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