|Latin:||Silybum marianum asteraceae|
An annual or overwintering annual, native to the Mediterranean and now widely naturalized across the planet, milk thistle is a striking plant growing from 3 to 7 feet tall with large smooth, glossy green leaves edged with sharp spines and painted with veins of creamy white. According to tradition, these veins originated from the milk of the Virgin Mary falling upon a plant, hence the plants alternate names Mary Thistle, or Saint Mary's Thistle. It bears beautiful bee-loving, solitary, bright purple flower heads, which give rise to the brown-black seeds.
The plant prefers moist, rich calcareous soil with full sun, but will tolerate part shade. Because milk thistle is a tap-rooted plant, it does not take to transplanting and does poorly in pots. It is best sown directly in the soil either in the early spring for a late summer harvest or in late summer, allowing the rosettes to overwinter (they’re hardy to 5°F) and harvesting the ripe seed the following summer.
Don’t plant too densely as it will be a painful process when harvesting the seed. Gloves are recommended! First cut off the partially dried seed head prior to it fully opening, collect in a bin, and dry down further in the sun for several days. Then thresh the seed head until it’s fully broken apart, screen and winnow until you’re left with just the beautiful milk thistle seed. Alternately, you can pluck the seeds from the ripe heads if you are very careful.
The leaves contain silymarin, the active ingredient also found in the seeds, and are edible and tasty. First remove the prickly spines by carefully peeling or cutting off the outer edge and add to salads or steam.
Milk thistle seeds have long been known for their powerful regenerative effect on the liver. The seeds are also known to have antioxidant, antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties.
Roasted milk thistle seeds can be used as a coffee substitute and milk thistle roots can also be utilized, being eaten roasted or boiled and buttered.
- About Salt Spring Seeds
A passionate gardener since he planted his backyard in Montreal at age 13, Dan Jason is committed to empowering people to grow their own food and save their own seed. Since 1976 he has lived on Salt Spring Island, BC, where he created the mail order seed company Salt Spring Seeds, which specializes in heritage and heirloom open-pollinated and non-GMO seed varieties of vegetables and plants.
As an active critic of genetically modified seeds, patents on living organisms and industrial agriculture in general, he is a dedicated educator on sustainable organic gardening and farming, food politics, seed saving, and a farmer of beautiful gardens full of vegetables, grains, medicinal and culinary herbs and flowers.