The milk thistle plant, named for the milky veins that adorn its leaves, has been cultivated for over 2000 years for both medicinal and culinary purposes. Herbal remedies made from milk thistle and its active ingredient, silymarin, are available for purchase at natural food stores. Milk thistle comes in many forms, such as capsules, tinctures and extracts, as well as tea bags. Milk thistle is also available for purchase in bulk form.
The Mayo Clinic reports that milk thistle has been studied as a treatment for a variety of conditions, noting that long term European studies have pointed to milk thistle's effectiveness in improving liver function and decreasing death rates from cirrhosis. In clinical studies, both chronic viral hepatitis patients and patients with chronic hepatitis due to alcohol use have responded to milk thistle treatment with improved liver function test results. Similar research for acute viral hepatitis have been inconclusive.
Preliminary reports suggest that milk thistle shows potential in the treatment of cancer of the breast, liver, cervix and prostate gland, according to the Mayo Clinic. Milk thistle extract also shows promise as a possible treatment for controlling blood sugar in diabetic cirrhosis patients.
Further research is necessary to confirm these findings and to increase the quality of research regarding milk thistle.
Though not commonly acknowledged as an edible plant in modern times, the Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine notes that up until the late 1800s, Europeans cultivated milk thistle as a vegetable. Milk thistle heads have been boiled and eaten much like artichokes. The leaves have been plucked, de-thorned and used in salads, and were popular as a spring lettuce substitute, due to the scarcity of green vegetables following the long winter months.
Though some gardeners shy away from menacing looking thistle plants, herbalist Patrick Lima recommends the milk thistle for its striking foliage, due to the milky white veins on its broad leaves.
Milk thistle plants grow to an average of 5 feet in height, and have large purple flowers and thorny leaves. Milk thistle bears small, brown, spotted, shiny fruit with a hard skin. Milk thistle is easy to grow, and can be started from seeds indoors in April, for transplant outdoors in May. A biennial plant, it matures quickly, bearing leaves during the first year and flowers the second.