Thistle. A Scottish legend tells how the thistle, a plant with purple blooms and prickly stems and leaves, became a national emblem. Around A . D . 950, Norse raiders invaded Scotland. As they crept toward a Scottish camp after dark, one of them stepped on a thistle. The resulting cry of pain awoke the Scots, who drove the invaders away and saved Scotland.
Scientific Name: Silybum marianum
Part used: Seed
In a word: Liver Plant
Uses: Liver Disease, cirrhosis, viral and chemically induced hepatitis, liver insufficiency, exposure to toxic chemicals, self pollution!
The thistle has never been a cherished plant. It has always been considered a pain in the rear, literally. There is nothing worse than weeding in the garden, reaching down to pull out a load of weeds and discovering there is a baby thistle hidden in the weeds. Ouch. They are covered with spines that happily stick into your flesh and cause a sudden shock of pain. The thistle is not spoken of in pleasant terms in the Bible. The Hebrew dardar, or thistle, is constantly referred to as God’s punishment for man behaving badly – from Adam onwards. Like the blackberry and artemisia, the thistle was an unloved biblical plant.
On top of the Holy Land being a painfully sunny and hot spot on the planet, it is literally covered with spiny plants. This is an evolutionary thing; plants living in dry environments cover themselves with spines to keep animals away. I would say their strategy works just fine. The Holy Land is home to 125 species of thistles, that is a world record. Biblical scholars feel that though there are a lot of thistles in the Holy Land, the Bible is referring to four species in particular. Milk thistle, Silybum marianum, is thought to be one of these four major thistles. The plant is commonly known as St Mary’s thistle for reasons we will discuss later.
Though the ancient people didn’t exactly love the plant, they did have respect for it. It was seen as a strong plant, one that held its own and came out a winner. In Teutonic mythology the plant was associated with the Teutonic god Thor, power incarnate. Both Thor and the thistle were associated with thunder. Wearing the thistle was said to bring with it the protection of Thor. Several royal houses have adopted the thistle as their emblem because it was a symbol of power.
St. Mary’s thistle or the milk thistle, like the thistles of Greece and Northern Europe, is associated with all sorts of myth and magic. The leading bit of local folklore is that while the Virgin Mary was nursing Jesus, her milk spilt onto a thistle. Her milk ran down the leaf, filling the creases with white. Evermore the thistle would have white veins on its leaf in remembrance of the Virgin’s milk. Hence the name “milk thistle”. The plant does indeed have white networks of veins on its leaves, one of its characteristic features that differentiates it from most thistles. The plant is also known as St. Mary’s thistle.
The ancient world saw the milk thistle as a source of power, power that was given to it by whatever God they called their own. From the earliest day the milk thistle was seen as a bitter tonic, powerfully rejuvenating to the liver. The seeds were used in the medical practices of Dioscorides and all the other early physicians.
The Arabians said that the plant was a bitter appetizer, a plant that would stimulate both the appetite and the digestive process. It was seen as a building plant, taken on a regular basis to improve the health, especially if there was any trouble with the liver. Liver trouble is easy to detect, the patient turns yellow and can’t tolerate fatty food. The ancient Arabian physicians were quite aware of liver disease. Hepatitis was common in the ancient world as sanitation was not the best. Doctors had to know how to treat liver troubles and their favourite treatment was a course of milk thistle.
Research revealed that milk thistle contains flavolignans which are hepatoprotectant, meaning they protect the liver from damage due to toxic substances. The seed contains 3% silymarin, which is actually a generic name for the flavolignan compounds that protect the liver. The most active substance is something known as silybin. Other ingredients in the cocktail known as silymarin are silymarin, silydianin, and silychristin. The action of these chemicals is simple and it occurs on the cellular level.
“Silymarin” make the liver cells less permeable to toxins. The toxins can enter the liver via the blood, but they are not absorbed by the liver cells and therefore do not damage the cells and the liver on the whole. That is all well and fine for people taking toxic drugs or that have been exposed to toxic chemicals, but what about people with viral hepatitis? The ancients also used the plant when people turned yellow as a result of infectious disease. Silymarin has been proven to inhibit viruses, which of course are at the root of viral hepatitis. If there was a herbal medicine for a person with viral hepatitis, this would be it.
The plant also contains sesquiterpene lactones which give the plant and the seed its characteristic bitter taste. These chemicals stimulate the liver cells to produce more bile, an essential element in proper digestion and absorption of nutrition. These chemicals do so even in the case of a damaged liver, whether the damage is as a result of a poisoning, alcohol abuse, or hepatitis. People with liver damage tend to suffer from poor digestion and malabsorption as a result of their lack of bile. Milk thistle can reverse this situation.
Milk thistle has been used as a liver tonic for hundreds of years. In a book entitled “Leaders in Homeopathic Therapeutics,” published in 1898, the author, a Dr Nash, had an interesting story to relate about this plant. “It is a so-called liver remedy, and I have seen good results from it in liver troubles. I have known cases of habitual colic from gall stones, checked and the further formation of the stones prevented by this remedy. One of them was a very bad case, for which old Dr. Pulte of Cincinnati, prescribed Cardus. She (the patient) could not lie down, but sat in her chair, bent over forward, for 48 hours, and during this time she passed 200 gall stones, very hard and nearly the size and shape of a beechnut, which were found by washing the faeces. I have a dozen or so now in a little vial in my office”. Milk thistle came to the rescue with what sounds like a dire case of gall bladder stones. Milk thistle has always been said to work miracles with the liver and the opinion is maintained to this day.