Though thistles are often considered to be noxious and are rooted out as invaders by gardeners, milk thistle--Silybum marianum--is an exception. The reason is the plant's reputed benefits, specifically medicinal benefits, accrued from the seeds of the plant. Because it has beneficial qualities, milk thistle is featured in supplements featuring milk thistle are widely sold in the United States. Milk thistle grows up to 8 feet tall and 3 feet wide. Flowers are purple and bloom in spring and summer. Studies do show evidence that milk thistle is beneficial medicinally, but more studies must be completed.
Improvement: Alcoholic Liver Disease
The federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality evaluated several studies to analyze the effects of milk thistle, especially its potential benefits against liver disease. The agency reported that four out of six studies revealed those taking milk thistle who suffer from chronic alcoholic liver disease showed "significant improvement in at least one measurement of liver function."
Improvement: Acute Viral Hepatitis
The Agency found that one study showed that milk thistle used to fight acute viral hepatitis did result in benefits. The placebo-controlled study found significant improvement in some liver function 28 days into taking milk thistle.
Protection from Toxins
The University of Maryland Medical Center says that milk thistle, according to studies, can likely protect the liver from toxins, including common drugs such as acetaminophen, which can potentially cause liver damage. A flavonoid in milk thistle called silymarin seems especially helpful.
The deathcap mushroom damages the liver and can kill. Luckily, speedy administration of milk thistle can counteract the poison. After ingestion, there's a 10-minute window to give the antidote to avoid all damage. After the 10 minutes, risk of death or liver damage is greatly lessened if milk thistle is given within the first 24 hours.
Potential Cancer Fighter
Milk thistle shows some promise in fighting cancer, stopping cancer cell division and shortening cell life. Milk thistle may also potentially reduce blood flow to tumors, starving them.
Milk thistle, like all thistles, attract much bird and insect life. The goldfinch especially frequents thistle, using it for nesting materials and as a food source. Bees visit, along with butterflies and beetles.