This magnificent-looking thistle, known by many names, including Blessed Milk Thistle and Marian Thistle (Silybum marianum, Carduss marianus), originated in the Mediterranean region and like many other honey producing thistles, has spread around the world. It was once commonly eaten as food in Europe and has been used medicinally for centuries. Its leaves have milk-white veins which, along with the stem, were both eaten. Also known as wild artichoke, its young buds may also been eaten.
Milk Thistle is grown commercially for the therapeutic use of its seeds and these localities are the best sources of this honey. Growing wild, it often finds its way in to multi-floral honey, and it may be a significant contributor to Italian Thistle honey from Sardinia. It is under-represented in pollen analysis and which makes it difficult to know for sure. Analysis of its volatile aromatics does give a fingerprint of sorts and may help in the future with identification.
Milk Thistle honey color ranges from pale yellow to deep amber. The taste is fairly mild, sweet flavor, slightly bitter with an astringent aftertaste. The aroma is medium intensity and the flavor is persistent. It has a fresh floral aroma and slightly woody or mossy. It can be quite thick and dense. It crystallizes with medium large, sandy crystals, often unevenly in light spots or lines.
It has a long history of medicinal use from Europe to the middle east. It is one of the oldest known herbal medicines and is mentioned in the writing of Dioscorides (40 – 90 AD), Pliny the Elder (23 – 79 AD), Theophrastus (371 – 287 BC), and John Gerard (1545 – 1611 AD), to name a few. Although it is sometimes difficult to be sure some of the earlier writers were actually refering to milk thistle.
Dioscorides referred to a plant later attributed to Milk Thistle (but he may have been referring to Common Sowthistle Sonchus oleraceus) as a possible treatment for scorpion bite. Pliny the Elder may or may not have been referring to Milk Thistle, he called it “sillybum” in Latin (he may have been referring to Marsh Sow Thistle Sonchus palustris). He used it along with equal parts honey for “carrying off the bile” which likely referred to inducing vomiting rather than direct action upon the liver. Ancient medicine equated excess bile with sickness rather than anything to do with liver disfunction. Nevertheless, at some point in history it became recommended as a treatment for liver and gallbladder problems.
Research in Germany in the 1950’s discovered the active component, silymarin, found in Milk Thistle seeds. And further research has proven silymarin is actually a mixture of compounds known as flavonolignans, which have a liver protective effect.
It has been shown to reverse liver damage of the highly toxic Amanita phalloides or “Death cap”, one of the most deadly of poisonous mushrooms 1. Also used to treat liver damage from excess alcohol consumption by stabilizing the cell membrane and stimulating protein synthesis while accelerating the process of regeneration in damaged liver tissue.
Latin Name: Silybum marianum, Carduss marianus
Locations:Russia, Croatia, France, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Argentina
Odor: fresh floral note
Flavor: fresh floral, slightly woody
Odor: green floral, strongly hyacinth note
Flavor: floral, honey note
3-phenyl furan (5%), possibly a marker for milk thistle honey
Odor: Cocoa, Green, Mint
Translations: Bulgarian: мед бял трън; Russian: Мёд расторопши; German: Mariendistel Honig; Ukranian: мед розторопші; French: Miel de chardon-Marie; Spanish: Miel de cardo mariano; Italian: Miele di cardo mariano
Image Credit: By: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos and GNU Free Documentation License
Further reading and references
1/ K. Hruby, G. Csomos, M. Fuhrmann and H. Thaler. Chemotherapy of Amanita phalloides Poisoning with Intravenous Silibinin. Human & Experimental Toxicology April 1983 vol. 2 no. 2 183-195
A Modern Herbal, first published in 1931, by Mrs. M. Grieve.
Introduction – Milk Thistle: Effects on Liver Disease and Cirrhosis and Clinical Adverse Effects.
Milk Thistle & Amanita muscaria Poisoning
Milk Thistle – EnCognitive.com
Milk Thistle – National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
Milk Thistle – National Cancer Institute
Volatile Profiles of Honeys using HS-SPME-GC-MS. Reporter Vol. 28.1 Supelco Analytical
The Good Scents Company