Milk thistle is a Mediterranean plant in the daisy family that is characterized by tufts of purple flower heads surrounded by a halo of protective thorns. Because the plant is associated with the Virgin Mary, who is reputed to have wept over the plant, it is also called Holy Thistle, Blessed Thistle, Mary Thistle and Lady’s Thistle. The plant is harvested for its seed, which contains a significant amount of amino acids, protein and, most notably, a group of chemical compounds referred to as silymarin. Milk thistle seed can be added to salads and other foods, but is most commonly used to produce teas, infusions, tinctures and extracts.
Milk thistle is a pasture plant found throughout Europe and the Pacific Northwest of the US, although it is indigenous to the Mediterranean. Like other thistles, the plant protects itself with sharp thorns, which are memorable when brushed against.
For centuries, the entire milk thistle plant (sans thorns) has been cultivated for food, most notably in European monastery gardens. The plant contains compounds collectively known as silymarin, which are toxic to livestock but provide the modern emergency antidote to mushroom poisoning in people.
These seeds are pleasant tasting and a good source of protein and amino acids. The powdered form is a convenient way to enjoy this herb in smoothies, yogurt and other foods.