St Mary’s thistle or milk thistle (Silybum marianum) has been famous as a liver herb for thousands of years and promoted for its liver-protecting effects.. Milk thistle is distinguished by the large glossy leaves with creamy-white variegations around the veins. Tradition says that the variegations originated from the milk of the Virgin which once fell upon the plant.
The main active ingredient in milk thistle is the high amount of silymarin. Modern research shows that St Mary’s thistle has a truly remarkable ability to both regenerate damaged liver cells. It has been widely used for liver and gallbladder diseases including hepatitis, cirrhosis (of the liver), gallstones and jaundice. The silymarin extracted from milk thistle has proven` to have antioxidant, antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties.
Milk thistle or St. Mary’s Thistle (Silybum marianum) should not be confused with Holy or Blessed Thistle (Cnicus benedictus).
It is a different species with different medicinal properties. Blessed Thistle is not edible, whereas, Milk Thistle is edible and used by foragers as ‘bush food’.
It is said to have obtained its name from its high reputation as a heal-all, being supposed even to cure the plague. The name derived from the Benedictine Monks during the Middle Ages… who used it as a cure-all during the bubonic plague that struck Europe and Asia in the mid-1300s.
Blessed thistle was traditionally used in bitter tonics to stimulate appetite and digestion, among other potential uses. Today it is commonly brewed as a tea, or in dietary supplements (usually in capsule form), in herbal tinctures and extracts.
Blessed thistle contains tannins, which are water-soluble polyphenols that help protect the body against oxidation and support healthy digestion; whereas, milk thistle contains silymarin, a popular ingredient in herbal supplements used to support liver health.