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The main features
The holy thistle, scientific name Silybum marianum, is a medical herbaceous plant belonging to the great Asteraceae family. It grows spontaneously in the Mediterranean countries, but according to some ancient texts it is native to India. In Italy it grows especially in the central southern areas, especially in the lowlands and high hills, it develops mainly with a mild climate and does not tolerate too rigid temperatures.
The thistle has an erect and branched stem and can reach up to one meter in height. The branches are angular and have a color that turns towards red, while the surface is covered with a slight pungent hair that is annoying to the touch. The leaves are bright green and can measure up to thirty centimeters and grow completely over two years. The main characteristics of the leaves are: a slight white mottle on the upper part of the body and pungent and jagged edges with a thorn at the end. The flowers are small, about four centimeters, have a color ranging from purple to yellow and are protected by a sort of casing with spines. Flowering takes place in spring while the holy thistle is harvested in the summer, almost all parts of the plant are used except the branches. The flowers and leaves are dried in the shade and used to prepare decoctions and elixirs to be taken in oral form or in cosmetic preparations and ointments, while the roots are pulverized and used to prepare medicines against high fever. The use of this plant has been diminishing over time, in the past it was widespread in a spontaneous form and was cultivated above all among the herbalists and in the vegetable gardens of the convents, today, instead it is increasingly rare and is mainly used in pharmaceutical discoveries.
Properties and uses
The holy thistle is used mainly for problems related to the digestive system, to combat inappetence and dyspeptic disorders. The leaves, in particular, perform a stimulating function on the gastric juices, contained in the stomach, helping to improve the digestion process.
In addition to stimulating the stomach, it can also be used to promote diuresis, and facilitate the production and expulsion of bile. The plant is rich in flavonoids, fatty acids, proteins, mucilage, silymarin and linoleic.
It also performs an astringent and toning action. For women, the intake of this plant is especially indicated during the menstrual period because it helps the physiological functions of the uterus, favoring relaxation, thus reducing the pain caused by contractions and cramps.
One of the most valuable substances extracted from the thistle is silymarin, a purifying substance particularly indicated for the liver, because it has a detoxifying action, favoring the elimination of toxins and waste that can accumulate over time. The bitter principle contained in the plant, quinine, is also used to counteract appetite and diet-related disorders.
The roots are indicated in cases of high fever, because they help to lower the body temperature, while the seeds have important detoxifying properties especially after food poisoning.
The holy thistle is used above all to prepare curative decoctions, but given its particularly sour and bitter taste, it is often prepared with other plants. There are no particular contraindications in the oral use of thistle preparations, although it is usually recommended to drink an infusion before meals, while it is not recommended in cases where you suffer from hyperacidity. Normally, however, it is always necessary to abuse these herbal preparations and not to exceed in the indicated doses, in fact, an excessive abuse can also cause vomiting and general malaise.
In addition to digestive problems, this plant also helps combat depression and stress, in a mild form. It can be prepared as a tonic and palliative for brain disorders. During the Middle Ages herbalists advised the thistle to strengthen memory and cure deafness, but modern studies do not seem to confirm these ideas.
This plant is used not only as a medicinal medicinal preparation but also in the pharmaceutical and cosmetic field for its antiseptic and tissue repairing properties. On the market there are several drugs based on holy thistle, used to heal ulcers and heal skin sores, in particular ointments and ointments for external use. On a cosmetic level it is particularly suitable for combating furunculosis and juvenile acne, in fact, the thistle is used in detergents and creams for its purifying and healing properties.
In the kitchen it can be used in vegetable-based soups and fruit-based jams or medical plants, but it is advisable to add sugar or honey, given its too bitter and bitter taste. From the thistle is also obtained a precious liqueur with digestive properties, typical of many sea areas and usually good at the end of a meal, it can be added to the wine during the harvest phase to give a more definite and marked taste to the drink.
Curiosities and historical notes
The holy thistle takes its name from an ancient religious legend linked to the birth of Jesus. The white streaks on the leaves would have originated from the maternal milk of the Virgin Mary while nursing her son. The event would have happened during the flight to Egypt, when the Holy Family was on the run from the Romans. Pliny the Elder in his book "Natural History" includes this plant among the most valuable vegetables that can be found in nature. The cultivation of this plant was widespread during the Middle Ages, in monastic convents, in particular as a remedy to calm agitation and palpitations. The famous English playwright Shakespeare mentions its use in one of his plays. A legend also links this plant to the emperor Frederick III, it was he who gave it the name of blessed thistle. A preparation with the leaves of this plant managed to make him pass the migraine and since then the thistle was also called a magical and blessed plant. Despite being quite widespread, the plant was also very precious, especially for the poorest, because due to its multiple properties it was considered the panacea for all ills.
Holy thistle: the thistle symbol of Scotland
The thistle is also the national symbol for Scotland, the plant is called "Guardian thistle", protector thistle. A legend tells that invading Vikings, arriving on the Scottish coasts to assault a village, stung themselves with the spines of the leaves and shouting were discovered by the Scots who managed to escape the invasion. As a Scottish symbol, the thistle also appears on ancient coins handed down to us and preserved in museums.
Even the popular tradition tells many legends related to the thistle, in fact, another name given to the plant, is that of "cardoon magic", to burn a twig, according to superstition, removed the negativity from the houses and contrasted the depression and the sadness that could being in it, giving serenity and tranquility.