Saturday, July 26, 2008

Another Thistle

Left: Silybum marianum, the Marian thistle, is also known as milk thistle, because of the milky-white streaks on the spiny leaves; right: The thistle appears outside and below the enclosure of the captive Unicorn, near the Madonna lily (Lilium candidum), another plant associated with the Virgin. Visit the Collection Database to see the detail in context and learn more about The Unicorn in Captivity.

While thistles were a thorn in the farmer’s side, then as now, virtually all plants were accorded medicinal value in the Middle Ages. Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) was eaten as a vegetable, and is grown in a bed devoted to pottage plants here at The Cloisters, but it has a rightful place in the medicinal collection as well. According to the Grand Herbier, this thistle was believed to increase the flow of mother’s milk, and help women to nourish their children. (Margaret Freeman, The Unicorn Tapestries, 1976.) The Hortus Sanitatis gives a long list of medicinal virtues, including the capacity to relieve the thirst of infants bitten by venomous creatures. (Frank Anderson, German Herbals to 1500, 1984.) Many if not most of us have seen milk thistle capsules on the shelves of drugstores or of health food stores; modern research indicates that the plant can help to repair damaged liver tissue.

I have seen milk thistle grown as an ornamental in England, and it does make an attractive foliage plant, but it is necessary to cut back the flowering stems as they emerge. Once the milk thistle blooms, it will no longer produce leaves, but will quickly go to seed. The purplish-pink flower head is attractive, but as with all thistles, the head should be removed before the seed disperses. (The flower of the milk thistle in the detail from The Unicorn in Captivity appears to be white, but when seen from the reverse side of the tapestry, the flower shows pink. Exposure to light has faded some of the original colors.)

As with other medieval European species once prized as healing plants, the milk thistle is considered to be an agricultural weed in the United States. Despite the medicinal virtues of thistles, medieval agriculturalists liked them no better than today’s farmers, and they equipped themselves with a thick leather mitt when dealing with these plants. Many ingenious methods of weed control were devised in the Middle Ages, including the use of two weed hooks that could be used in tandem as the weeder systematically worked his or her way between furrows, pulling weeds free of the soil and laying them down to mulch the roots of the crop. (Dorothy Hartley, Lost Country Life, 1979.) Weeds were troublesome in lawns and gardens as well as in the fields. The great medieval theologian and scientist Albertus Magnus recommended pouring boiling water over the site where a lawn was to be laid, in order to kill the weed seeds.

In the Middle Ages, the symbolic connotations of thistles were altogether negative. They were inextricably bound up with the Fall of Man and the cursed ground mentioned in Genesis 3:18. There were no weeds in Paradise.

???Deirdre Larkin

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Comments (18)

  1. Jeffrey Says:

    Thistle is a beautiful plant in many ways - the flower has an intensity of hue, stunning to see. In the field, thistles stand out, a vivid purple puff against the backdrop of other plants. Perhaps even more fascinating than its blossom is the seed pod - a hive of tiny spikes that served as a decorative element in many of my Aunt Mary V’s crafty objects. I wonder if the milk thistle tastes anything like artichoke.

  2. thea mcginnis Says:

    In the Middle Ages, the symbolic connotations of thistles were altogether negative. They were inextricably bound up with the Fall of Man and the cursed ground …

    Scotland’s symbol of the Thistle and Rose - what did that mean in the middle ages? was that a negative symbol? I love thistles - admire their resilence!!

  3. Deirdre Larkin Says:


    I too find thistles beautiful. I have to admit that I have never eaten milk thistle, although we grow it here in our bed of pottage plants, i.e. greens that were boiled with grain to make a kind of thick soup that was a staple of the medieval diet. Next year we are featuring food plants as the theme for our Garden Weekend, and I think we should boil up some milk thistle. There are a number of edible thistles in the Aster (Compositae) family, but different parts of the plants are enjoyed. While the fleshy portion at the base of the artichoke flower (Cynara scolymus) is edible, it is the stems of the closely related cardoon (Cynara cardunculus) that are eaten. In the case of milk thistle, it was the leaves that were cooked as a vegetable.

  4. Francis Says:

    Is anyone aware of a recipe for thistle?

  5. Deirdre Larkin Says:


    I don’t know of any medieval recipes for milk or any other thistle, although I would probably be able to find one for artichokes and cardoons. Hildegard of Bingen, the twelfth-century German abbess and mystic who was the most learned woman of her day, wrote about the medicinal and dietary properties of many plants. She discusses thistle, which she called ‘distel,’ in her famous work on health and healing, known as Physica. Hildegarde considers that thistles are produced by the sweat of the earth, and that their twisted nature is attributable to this origin. She does not think that they should be eaten raw, since they would weaken a person. She considers cooked thistles to be neutral in value as a food; that is, they are neither harmful nor health-giving. The one thistle she does consider to be beneficial is the milk thistle. She gives a cure for stitch in the side: the sufferer is to take milk thistle and a quantity of sage almost equal to it, and reduce it to a juice in a little water. If drunk within the hour that the stich is felt, the person will feel better. (Hildegard’s Healing Plants, translated Bruce W. Hozeski, 2001.)

  6. Deirdre Larkin Says:


    The significance of the juxtaposition of the thistle and the rose was heraldic and dynastic. Their union represented the union of Scotland, the thistle, with England, the rose. Thistles have a positive connotation in Scotland, as I remarked earlier, but their significance was generally negative. It is well to remember that although many beliefs and practices associated with plants in medieval Europe would have been widely held, some would have been quite local. Scotland and Ireland have folkloric traditions of their own that would not have been common to Italy or France. For example, while thyme was widely used as a medicinal herb throughout Europe, it is only in Celtic tradition that it is strongly associated with romantic love.

  7. owfy Says:

    on the tapestry the the backside may show a pink however i’ve seen here in israel a genetic variety white flowered milk thistle.

  8. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Greetings, owfy—

    I thank you for that information. Both the Royal Horticultural Society Index of Plants, and Hortus III, the taxonomic references we rely on, describe only two members of the genus Silybum, both purple-flowered. Is milk thistle common in Israel?

  9. cowfy Says:

    pretty common.although who looks for it.i’ll try to remember this winter when it rain to pay attention.if i find a white milk thistle i’ll be sure to put the seeds away.

  10. cowfy Says:

    as a matter of fact our nieghboring moshav are kurdistanian jews who commonly eat the flesh of the pictured thistle.

  11. cowfy Says:

    i’ll try to get the exact recipe.

  12. Helen B Says:

    Hi, I’m pleased to discover other thistle enthusiasts. When in Glasgow a couple of years ago I asked a local for the name of a dark blue thistle which had a round head. She was unsure but thought it was called the Sea Thistle. Does anyone know what this might be? It is extremely attractive.

    I also have a friend who is an expert on weeds (really! The Deprtment of Primary Industries relies on his expertise). I recall him telling me the milk thistle was edible, so will ask if he has recipes.


  13. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Dear cowfy,

    I would be very happy to have it, as other visitors to the blog have asked about thistle recipes.

  14. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Hello, Helen B—

    I’m not altogether sure whether you saw your thistle growing wild or in a garden. When I think of a blue, round-headed thistle the genus that comes to mind is Echinops (like the genus Echinacea, the name refers to the hedgehog-like spines of the flowerhead.) Known as globe thistles, there are 120 species in the genus; some are native to Europe, and many others to Asia. I’ve never seen Echinops growing in the wild, and am only familiar with garden forms like the widely grown deep-blue cultivar of E. ritro called ‘Taplow Blue.’ Globe thistle is not on our medieval plant list here at The Cloisters, although it is certainly very attractive and I would definitely consider growing it in Cuxa Cloister Garden, which is not restricted to historical plants.

    It is difficult to identify a plant on the strength of a common name, but the fact that your informant referred to it as sea thistle makes me wonder if your plant was an Eryngium or sea holly, another member of the daisy family to which thistles belong. We grow two species of Eryngium in Bonnefont Cloister Herb Garden, E. maritimum, whose roots were eaten as an apphrodisiac, and the field eryngo, E. campestris. Both had a variety of medicinal uses in the Middle Ages.

    The smallish flowerheads of E. maritimum are somewhat rounded, but they are a pale blue and not at all showy, although the foliage is strikingly beautiful. There are a goodly number of Eryngium species and cultivars, some of which are very ornamental and have blue or blue-purple flowers. I think your plant is more likely to be an Echinops.

    Please do invite your friend the weed expert to visit the blog.

  15. Elsa Says:

    You mention Hildegard von Bingen called the thistle “distel”. That is what it is still called in German, Dutch and Afrikaans. In languages derived from Latin the thistle is called “cardo” or something similar. What is it called in other languages?

    Interesting that you mention “cardoon (Cynara cardunculus)” as related to the artichoke. Is the thistle related to these as well?

    Feel quite justified now in leaving the thistles growing in my backyard jungle here in Perth, Australia.

    Thanks for all the interesting information.

  16. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Hello, Elsa—

    Our word thistle is from Old English, and is very close to the distel of other Germanic languages. The Latin for thistle is carduus, from which the Romance languages derive their names, e.g cardo in Italian, chardon in French.

    Thistles belong to a very large botanical family, the Asteraceae, named after the the asters, a representative genus with the daisy flowers typical of the family. The thistles include a number of genera, including Carduus, Cirsium, Echinops, Onopordum, Silybum, and Cnicus. Older works give the name of the family as the Compositae, because their flowerheads are a composite of two types of flowers: the many tiny flowers packed into a disk (the eye of the daisy) and the ray petals which surround the disk. Some thistles, like the Carlina species discussed in an ealier post, have both disk and ray flowers, and others have only disk flowers.

    Cardoons and artichokes (closely related members of the genus Cynara) are thistle-like, but botanists do not group them with the true thistles in the genera listed above.

  17. bb Says:

    where can i buy thistle seeds to grow? Online or in brooklyn nyc - anyone know of a place?

  18. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    bb—Could you tell me what thistle in particular you are looking for? One good source that is likely to have a number of the thistles grown here as well as many others is J.L. Hudson, a seedsman based in California:

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