Milk Thistle, Silybum Adans, belongs to the sunflower family, native to southern Europe, North Africa and Asia Minor. Growing as high as 5 feet, Milk Thistle has large thorny leaves with striking light-green and white markings and bright pink flowers. The name "milk thistle" derives from two features of the leaves: they are mottled with splashes of white and they contain a milky sap.
A relative of the artichoke, the Milk Thistleherb may be eaten. The unscented seeds taste slightly bitter and should be ground. Milk Thistle is extremely hardy and is often considered to be a weed plant. However, the seeds and flowers are used extensively in herbal medicine.
The ancient legend says that it was Virgin Mary’s milk that dropped onto the leaves and left white traces. That is why people believe that this herb has lactation improving abilities, therefore, is good for use by nursing mothers.
Nowadays the plant becomes more familiar to the American consumers, too, gaining their confidence and trust in its power and health benefits. Since Milk thistle is easy to grow, it is already cultivated in many states throughout the country.
At one time or another, virtually all parts of the plant have been used as both cooking herb and medicine herb with virtually no reports of toxicity, aside from a mild laxative effect in some patients. The whole plant is astringent, bitter, cholagogue, diaphoretic, diuretic, emetic, emmenagogue, hepatic, stimulant, stomachic and tonic. Milk Thistle is used to treat inflammatory liver ailments, especially chronic illnesses, such as hepatitis and cirrhosis, gallbladder ailments and related digestive symptoms, varicose and spider veins problems in the legs.
It is possible to use leaves raw or cooked. The very sharp leaf-spines must be removed first, which is quite a fiddly operation. The leaves are quite thick and have a mild flavour when young, at this time they are quite an acceptable ingredient of mixed salads, though they can become bitter in hot dry weather. When cooked they make an acceptable spinach substitute. Flower buds can be cooked. A globe artichoke substitute, they are used before the flowers open. The flavour is mild and acceptable, but the buds are quite small and even more fiddly to use than globe artichokes.