Thistle with a rich history

In the Countryside: Grace Corne profiles a plant which links the Virgin Mary and a ‘cure’ for the plague

When I called at a local shop recently I was surprised and pleased to find a number of plants of milk thistle (Silybum marianum) growing at the bottom of a hedge. Although this is a true thistle and is certainly unpleasantly prickly, it is an attractive plant and deserves to be grown more.

In good ground this thistle can reach a height of almost two metres. The flowers are deep lilac rather than purple and the leaves are large, blue-green and characteristically patterned with white blotches. Strangely this thistle was actually introduced from Southern Europe and the Near East to serve as a vegetable, and it is said if the prickles are trimmed and the remainder of the leaves boiled they are probably nicer to eat than cabbage. The stems could also be soaked, stewed and sweetened and the roots were certainly edible.

There was a time when many members of the plant kingdom came under scrutiny and some were considered bad, and to have associations with the devil. These might now be found under the name ‘old man’ or ‘Robin’ and others were said to be plants of the Virgin Mary and were therefore considered to be most acceptable.

This thistle with its white, speckled leaves, was an obvious candidate for a ‘Mary’ plant, and there are still those who believe that the speckles originated from an accidental spillage of the Virgin’s milk. A result of this was that the plant was considered to have benefits for nursing mothers.

The milk thistle definitely did have medicinal uses but it is as well to remember that to the countryman any plant with purple flowers and prickly leaves is a thistle, so correct identification is advisable.

The ancient herbalists were all agreed that preparations of milk thistle were helpful in the treatment of chest and liver problems. Ever the optimist, Culpeper also recommended the use of the plant against fevers and the plague. In very much earlier times milk thistles would be worn to repel snakes and it was even believed they had the ability to cure rabies.