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Historical Uses of Milk Thistle (Silybum Marianum)

Penelope lived in Tuscany among the olive groves and farms for years, learning from local people about their culture, land, and food.

The Drying Flower of the Milk Thistle Plant in Tuscany

The drying flower of the Milk Thistle plant

The drying flower of the Milk Thistle plant

Crown of Thorns

Crown of thorns on Jesus Head in a circular weave (from a church in Oaxaca Mexico).

Crown of thorns on Jesus Head in a circular weave (from a church in Oaxaca Mexico).

Jesus' Crown of Thorns

The ground is scorched dry, yellow and blistering where I live in Maremma Tuscany. It is parched like the dry lands of the Middle East (with global warming). The driveway to our farmhouse kicks up dust which lands on struggling blackberry plants, the leaves of oak trees and olive trees and onto resisting clusters of tall spindly wild thistle (Sylibum Mariano).

On a recent horse and carriage trip through the Natural Park of the Maremma, our guide told us all about this formidable plant, the Milk Thistle (or in Italian 'il Cardo Mariano'). His stories turn around and around in my mind. Its resilience and its uses are fascinating, as is the story of the hardy Maremma people.

If you ask a very old farmer's wife how they survived their immense poverty of the last century she will tell you how resourceful they were making use of what little they had for food, for agriculture and for medicine. She will tell you reverentially what an essential part that 'Milk Thistle' or (cardo mariano as they call it here) played in that life -

  • not just as a curative plant,
  • not just for its resisting beauty,
  • not just because it has had many practical uses which this article will tell you about

but because

  • they believe here in Maremma that this thorny prickle wove the crown that was Jesus' Crown of Thorns.

Milk Thistle (Cardo Mariano) in Maremma Italy

Milk Thistle, (Cardo Mariano) or Sylibum Marianum in our fields in Maremma

Milk Thistle, (Cardo Mariano) or Sylibum Marianum in our fields in Maremma

Uses of Milk Thistle as Fencing

The plant can grow to six feet and have branches that can grow to about four feet.

In Maremma this tall robust Milk Thistle was woven to make miles of fencing to divide lands up into fields to keep cattle from roaming - and make it harder for hungry foxes and marauding wild boar to get around, (since fence posts would have be too expensive).

The potassium nitrate content makes the plant very toxic to cattle and sheep.

Now fencing is made with the wood of sturdy oak trees growing here - "the oak trees from which wood was cut to make Italian railroads" I was told.

A Modern Herbal

Benefits of Milk Thistle for Health

The root of the plant was boiled to cure liver diseases. In fact herbalist Westmacott, 1694 said of it that "It's a friend to the liver and blood". His associate Culpepper said it cured infections like the plague and was a good remedy for removing liver and spleen obstructions. Our guide in the Maremma Nature Park explained that it was an effective 'purge', that the women would boil the roots for a 'tisane' for ailments that needed cleansing from the body.

In fact when I visited my local herb shop, the local herbalist said - looking at me with intent - that it is indeed very effective.

I can only imagine it must be one powerful laxative!

Milk Thistle Benefits

Milk Thislte Benefits.  The seeds in a local herb shop

Milk Thislte Benefits. The seeds in a local herb shop

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How to Take Milk Thistle

You can make a tea by either-

1. Grinding a few tablespoons of the seed in your coffee grinder

2. Boil for ten minutes

3. Strain.


1. Boiling a few tablespoons of the seeds for ten minutes

2. Letting seep for half an hour

3. Strain

You might like to flavor your tea with honey or mint or both!

Milk Thistle Health Benefits and Properties

The herbalist pulled out her books and read when to use Milk Thistle as a cure. I'm not a herbalist or a doctor but I believe the old lady of the Maremma and the contents of our local herbalists book ('my bible' she calls it) - and what I read on the internet - that the seeds, oils and leaves of Silybum Marianum are capable of helping to cure many ailments related to the liver and also to the heart -

Oil of milk thistle:

- tonic

- laxative

- gastric stimulant

Some exaples when to use:

- hemorrhoids

- hypochondria

- cirrhosis of the liver


(have the same affect as the spurs of rye)

- Act as a tonic for the heart stimulating the kidneys and veins.

Some examples when to use the seeds:

- hypertension

- toning of the heart's functions.

- very effective in reducing cholesterol

Milk Thistle Seeds Once Made Coffee in the Maremma

Milk thistle seeds at the herbalist

Milk thistle seeds at the herbalist

Maremma Tuscany Use of Milk Thistle - Coffee

The Maremma was a very poor part of Tuscany. It's lands weren't fully reclaimed from being malarial swamps until the second decade of the nineteenth century when Mussolini finished draining all the lands - that local Dukes had begun draining two hundred years previously.

Food of all sorts was scarce to this country of peat makers, pine nut gleaners, and the occasional shepherd.

Instead of coffee, the people of the Maremma made their morning coffee from the ground dried seeds of the Mariano thistle.

No wonder they have respect for their resilient, humble Milk Thistle.

Silymarin (Milk Thistle) Capsules

© 2012 Penelope Hart


Penelope Hart (author) from Rome, Italy on August 13, 2012:

Yes, I was intrigued too It may well have been this thistle. It's a weird thought isn't it? Thanks for your interest and comment.

GiblinGirl from New Jersey on August 13, 2012:

Really fascinating hub. I've never heard of milk thistle before, but I was really intrigued that it was thought to be used in Jesus' crown of thorns.

Penelope Hart (author) from Rome, Italy on August 13, 2012:

Hello travmaj (are you Marjorie as my mother is?). Yes our older people knew much about how to use plants. I'm fortunate to live in a rural area of Tuscany where this kind of knowledge is still being passed down. The older folk here taught me lots.

Penelope Hart (author) from Rome, Italy on August 13, 2012:

Wondering how it was used in other countries of our world? In USA, Australia? It's fascinating that this weed is so useful. Thanks so much for your appreciated comment.

travmaj from australia on August 12, 2012:

how interesting - milk thistle is such a versatile plant - there must be so many more that became - well - unfashionable. I remember growing up in England and elderly neighbours out and about picking plants to use for various remedies -I took it all for granted. Now, I wish I knew.

Thanks for this -

Penelope Hart (author) from Rome, Italy on August 11, 2012:

This is true. We've all been created for one reason or another! Thanks for superb comment.

Dan Harmon from Boise, Idaho on August 11, 2012:

Once more it is rubbed in our face that nearly every plant, animal and mineral on earth is valuable in some way or another.

A most interesting hub, GoodLady - thank you.

Penelope Hart (author) from Rome, Italy on August 11, 2012:

Natashalh. It's amazing. All those years I looked at it as though it was a weed, but instead it is a noble grass! Thanks for kind comment.

Natasha from Hawaii on August 11, 2012:

Interesting. I'd heard milk thistle was useful, but I didn't know how useful! Fences, beverages, medicines - wow. It's amazing how many simple 'weeds' are actually quite healthful and useful. Thanks for yet another informative hub!

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