Milk thistle – characteristics, cultivation and use

milk thistle
milk thistle

The milk thistle with its rosette leaves is one of the best studied medicinal plants. The plant, which is a member of the daisy family, contains silymarin. Main area of application is liver and biliary problems. But it also has an anticonvulsant effect on the autonomic nervous system.

Profile of milk thistle:

Scientific name: Silybum marianum

Plant family: daisies, composite, asters (Asteraceae)

Other names: cardus marianus, blessed milkthistle, Marian thistle, Mary thistle, Saint Mary’s thistle, Mediterranean milk thistle, variegated thistle and Scotch thistle

Sowing time / Planting time: February – April

Flowering period: May – September

Harvest time: from the second year

Useful plant parts: leaves, flowers, seeds, roots

Location: sunny

Soil quality: humus rich and well drained soil

These information are for temperate climate!

Use as a medicinal herb: liver complaints, bile flow disorders, alcohol abuse, motion sickness, indigestion, migraine, hepatitis C (supportive)

Use as aromatic herb: oil for dressings, fruits for tea

Plant characteristics and classification of milk thistle

Origin and occurrence of milk thistle

The area of origin of the milk thistle is in the Mediterranean. Wild forms of the plant can be found in southern Europe, parts of North Africa, Anatolia or in the southern countries of the former Soviet states. It inhabits mainly brownfields, wasteland but also forest edges with stony to slightly sandy soils.

Since today, it is an important medicinal plant, therefore, the milk thistle is cultivated in many countries.

Plant order of Silybum marianum

The milk thistle (Silybum marianum) is a representative of the large plant family of the daisies. It is related to many other important medicinal herbs such as mugwort, marigold or arnica. The milk thistle belongs to the genus of Silybum, which consists of only two species.

Previously, the milk thistle was botanically classified to the genus Carduus and referred to as Carduus marianus. In herbal medicine, this name is occasionally used today. Although the plant show many similarities with the plumeless thistles, but differ significantly in the number of chromosomes and in the ingredients contained in the plant ingredients.

Characteristics and look of milk thistle


Depending on the location, milk thistle reaches heights between 30 and 200 cm (8 in and 6.5 ft). In its natural habitat the plant is usually biennial and often one-year old in unfavorable locations. The root system is densely branched and consists of several not particularly hard dark brown to almost black roots. The root marrow is white to slightly yellowish.


Milk thistles have large lobed, thistle-like, gray-green leaves that carry a white pattern and form at the edge vigorous yellow, up to 8 mm (0.3 in) long thorns. They are between 20 and 50 cm (8 and 20 in) long and about 10 cm (4 in) wide.


The flowering of milk thistle grows only in the second year. There, the plant usually forms the typical basket flowers between the end of May and the beginning of September. The flower heads are purple colored and can be up to 7 cm (2.75 in) wide. The flowers are hermaphrodite. Each flower has several bracts, which can be up to 2 cm (0.8 in) long and form a small thorn at the end.


The infructescences of milk thistle are achenes, a kind of closing fruit. They carry yellow, silky haircrowns, which are called pappus. The shiny black and gray speckled seeds are fully developed in August / September.

Milk Thistle – cultivation and care


Milk thistles prefers sunny locations.


In order to grow optimall, the plant requires moderately nutrient-rich and well-drained soils. Loamy or clayey soils should be avoided in any case, as they can only conduct water to a limited extent. These should then be mixed with sand if possible to increase the conductivity.


The seeds can be grown both in the field and in pre-culture. In pre-culture, the seeds can be sown between the end of February to the beginning of April in small planters with a nutrient-poor growing substrate. The germination temperature is about 18 ° C, / 64 ° CF which is why the seeds can be sown from the end of April in the field. Milk thistle seeds need about 18 to 21 days to emerge the seedlings. In the field, the planting distance between the individual plants should be at least 40 cm (16 in) from each other.

A sowing in pot culture for cultivation on the balcony or terrace is possible, in which case rather large and deep pots should be chosen.


If milk thistle grows in barren soils, it should be mixed with a nitrogenous slow-release fertilizer (such as bovine manure pellets) or compost. High quality garden soils with good nutrition, need not be fertilized in the first year. Thistles in pot culture should be treated with a herbal fertilizer every six weeks from a growing-height of about 40 cm (16 in). Long-term or depot fertilizers can also be used.


Milk Thistle is very tolerant of the water supply. In nature, the plant is also found at dumps, roadsides, and farmyards. It is important that the soil never completely dries out at a depth of 10 cm (4 in), even if short dry phases are tolerated. On very hot days at least every second day should be poured. It is important that the soil is permeable. An oversupply of water can lead to plant damage or root rot.


In addition to watering in extreme drought, the milk thistle needs no further special care.


Milk thistle is somewhat frost-tolerant and can withstand temperatures down to -7 ° C / 19 ° F without any problems. In colder winters or at high altitudes it is recommended to cultivate in pots, as far as the plant should grow biennial. In short-term cold phases, the plant can also be covered with brushwood or mulch.

Diseases and pests

Frequent predators of the milk thistle are snails of all kinds, which eat the leaves of the plant. Occasionally, the plants are also attacked by fungi such as powdery mildew or gray mold, which is reflected by gray or yellowish coating on the leaves. Useful planting distances and the removal of weeds can prevent the occurrence of fungal diseases.


For harvest in early summer, pick the flower heads while they are still wearing their white haircrowns. Put the flower heads on a towel or cloth and let fully ripen in an airy room. When they are completely dry, you can knock out the seeds. It is best to store the grains in a dark place in an airtight container.

Previously, milk thistle was also used in the kitchen. The flower heads were cooked in hot water similar to artichokes, seasoned and served as strengthening vegetables. However, this type of use is hardly common today.

purple flower of milk thistle
purple flower of milk thistle

Use of milk thistle

Milk thistle in the kitchen

In early modern times, many components of milk thistle were used in the kitchen. For example, its roots were prepared similar to salsify, with a slightly bitter taste. The flower heads can be boiled and prepared similar to artichokes. In the past, the plant was therefore also referred to as wild artichoke. The taste is actually similar. However, since it is quite cumbersome to harvest the individual ingredients, milk thistle is processed today only very rare.

Good for use in the kitchen is milk thistle oil. The oil, which should be cold pressed, can be used as an ingredient in salad dressings. It should be noted that it has a relatively neutral taste and is not necessarily to be regarded as a delicacy.

Milk thistle as a medicinal herb

The milk thistle is scientifically well studied and plays a very important role in today’s conventional medicine as well as herbal medicine. Especially the fruits contain some highly interesting ingredients, which can be used for a variety of upper abdominal and digestive complaints.

Already in antiquity, milk thistle was not unknown as a medicinal herb. In the late Middle Ages and early modern times, the herb was considered as an effective remedy for constipation, urinary complaints, toothache or side stitches. It was also used for the milk production of women, which today is even reflected in the English plant name milk thistle.

In old herbal books it was recommended to make an infusion of milk thistle roots to clean the kidneys and treat constipation. Hildegard von Bingen described a treatment approach in which an infusion of the leaves of the plant can help against side stabbing. It is now believed that piercing also meant pleura. However, many of the treatment recommendations at that time barely play a role today.

Milk thistle can today be used for these ailments and diseases

  • allergies
  • biliary obstruction
  • dizziness
  • gall bladder problems
  • hepatitis
  • intestinal problems
  • leg ulcers
  • migraine
  • poisoning
  • portal stasis
  • seasicknes
  • stomach upset
  • travel sickness
  • trigeminal neuralgia
  • varicose veins

Medicinal properties

  • antispasmodic
  • astringent
  • detoxifying
  • diuretic
  • liver tonic
  • stimulating
  • sweaty
  • toning

Usually the fruits (seeds) of the milk thistle are used. Its herb is usually not used.

Milk thistle can be used as tea or in finished products. The most common way to use it are finished preparations from the pharmacy, in single and mixed teas.

Preparation of a milk thistle tea

Time needed: 10 minutes

This is how to prepare a milk thistle tea by yourself

  1. put one to two teaspoons of milk thistle fruit in ateas strainer in a cup

  2. dash with boiling water

  3. leave to draw for 10 to 20 minutes

  4. drink in small sips

  5. from this tea you drink one to three cups a day, before meals.

Milk thistle used inwardly

Milk thistle can be used internally as a tea for liver problems and hepatitis. A milk thistle cure is very useful to recover from a protracted liver inflammation. In addition, the plant helps against indigestion and migraine. For allergies, you can make a tea-cure with its seeds to stimulate the metabolism.

Milk thistle used externally

The folk medicine uses powdered milk thistle seeds to sprinkle leg ulcers (ulcus cruris). To treat these ulcers, you can also make envelopes with the tea.

Milk thistle used in homeopathy

Also in homeopathy, milk thistle is used under the name “Carduus Marianus”. They are mainly used in low powers, between D1 and D6. The homeopathic remedy is used against jaundice, various liver problems, bleeding and hemorrhoids, so similar in herbal medicine.

Milk thistle effect

The main effect of milk thistle is the liver protection effect. The active ingredient silibinin (also silymarin) protects the liver cells from the ingress of toxins. This protects the liver from toxins of almost any kind.

For example, the plant even protects against poisoning with the death cap (Amanita phalloides) and is one of the very few ways to treat such a poisoning meaningful.

Milk thistle also protects the liver from the harmful effects of chronic alcohol abuse.

Side effects

As a rule, milk thistle preparations are harmless. In rare cases, allergic reactions or diarrhea may occur. With known allergies to daisy family one should initially refrain from taking and consult a doctor. Also, in case of known kidney disease or dialysis, the intake of milk thistle should first be discussed with the attending physician. For children and young adolescents up to 18 years, the scientific basis is unfortunately insufficient, which is why should be dispensed with the intake of milk thistle preparations here due to the organ development.


Ask your doctor or pharmacist. Visiting this page can not replace the visit to the doctor. For serious or unclear complaints, consult your doctor.

Buy Milk Thistle – What to pay attention to?

Milk thistle is a well-known medicinal plant, which is also economically important. The fruits dominate the demand significantly. Seeds and fresh plants are in relatively little demand.

For the cultivation of milk thistles in their own garden or on the balcony, gardeners will have to give priority to seeds. Fresh plants are almost never offered. Seeds can be purchased at online marketplaces as well as from specialist traders. Pay attention to the botanical name (Silybum marianum). A package of seeds costs about 1.50 EUR/$.

If you want to rely on the healing power, you can fall back on various products in health food shops, pharmacies and supermarkets. Most common capsules are offered, which consist of extracts of milk thistle fruits. When buying capsules should therefore be compared especially the content of silymarin, which is the main active ingredient of the medicinal plant. Since extracts are used primarily for liver cleansing, ingredients such as ethanol or certain sugar substitutes such as aspartame should be avoided.

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