Silybum marianum

Milk Thistle – Chardon Marie

It is a native to Southern Europe through to Asia and has been introduced to other parts of the world.  Although most farmers in Northern Europe consider the Milk Thistle a pest and try to get rid of it when they find it on their land, it is, in fact, grown commercially as a crop for the seeds.  Here in France, it is cultivated in the Drôme Valley near the Parc Régional de Vercors.  The region is well known for organically grown herbs, serving the herb industry that has sprung up in the area.
It is a bitter, diuretic, tonic herb that regenerates liver cells, simulates bile flow, and relaxes spasms.  It is used to treat liver disease:  fatty liver caused by alcohol abuse, hepatitis A & B, cirrhosis of the liver and gallbladder disorders.  The seeds contain silymarin, silibin being the major component in silymarin.  Silymarin is an anti-oxydant and helps to prevent cancer of the prostate, liver, lungs and colon and possibly skin cancer.   It is very effective against poisons.   Amanita phalloides (Death Cap) is one of the most poisonous mushrooms, just eating 1/2 cap can cause death through liver and kidney damage.  Its cap is olive green but often lighter and is quite often confused with other edible mushrooms.   The silibin in the Milk Thistle can stop the damage being done to the liver cells by the poison.  Silibin does not readily dissolve in water.  Use a juice-extractor to recuperate the plant sap.  
The Milk Thistle is quite easy to recognise.  It is a biannual.   The leaves are large, oblong to lanceolate with spiny edges and marked with milky-white veins.  The flowerheads are purple in colour, 4-12 mm long, the bracts are narrow, triangular in shape terminating in a spine.  The seeds are dark brown in colour and are attached to a tuft-like appendage.
Milk Thistle leaves

milk thistle

All parts of the plant are edible.  The roots, harvested in the autumn of the first year, resemble salsify when boiled.  The young peeled stems can be cooked, like asparagus.  The flower heads (need gloves), harvested just before the bloom,  can be peeled and eaten raw or cooked, like artichokes.  The steamed leaves resemble spinach.  Again, gloves are needed to harvest the leaves.  Before using them, leave them aside for several hours, then trim the spiny edges and remove the large central vein.  
Bibliography:  Rustica – Le chardon ecologique; Wikipedia – Silybum marianum; Sauvages et comestibles – Marie – Marie-Claude Paume; RHS Encyclopedia of Herbs – Deni Bown.

About seasonalforaging

We are a group of friends who enjoy walking in the countryside in Provence searching for plants and herbs to identify and use.
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