Blessed thistle has been revered since at least the Middle Ages in Europe for its healing properties, at which time it was used as a digestive stimulant, a purifying tonic, and was also eaten as a vegetable. Further, traditional herbalists have employed it to support lactation in nursing mothers. This herb is approved by the German Commission E for its ability to increase appetite and support the digestive process, and is also an approved food additive in the United States as it is often found in liqueurs such as Benedictine.
First used in Ayurvedic medicine,5 blessed thistle eventually made its way to Europe. The Latin name benedictus was derived from blessed thistle’s immense healing properties implying its sacred virtues.4,5 By the early sixteenth century, it had securely gained footing in European folk medicine and was cultivated widely in monastery gardens.4,5 Even the famous poet Shakespeare mentioned blessed thistle in his play Much Ado about Nothing (written in 1598-1599 CE). Spiritually, it was associated with purification and therefore used in purification baths. It was also believed that wearing a bit of it would protect one from evil.6 Further, it was associated with the planet Mars, the zodiac of Aries, and the element fire.6,7
Blessed thistle was eaten as a vegetable, made into a powder to mix with wine, or made into fresh juice or tea.4 As this thistle stimulates digestive juices and thus the appetite, it is helpful for sluggish digestion or where there is a lack of appetite. It has served this purpose in both European traditional herbalism and in the Ayurvedic medicine system of India over the generations.5,8,9 In the United States and Germany, blessed thistle has been used in various formulas, particularly as a component of digestive bitters, to support the liver, gallbladder, and overall healthy digestion.1,3,5 Further, it has been administered to support and regulate the female reproductive system due to its action as an emmenagogue.4,9 Additionally, blessed thistle was considered a galactagogue and therefore given to nursing mothers to increase and enrich milk flow.3,4,9 However, it is important to note that large doses can act as an strong emetic.4 Many of the other thistles, such as milk thistle, have similar qualities to blessed thistle. Milk thistle (Silybum marianum), in particular, has been used to support the healthy functioning of the liver and gallbladder as well.4 According to herbalist Michael Moore, blessed thistle may be used similarly to other bitters that stimulate the upper gastrointestinal tract such as Artemisia spp., barberry (Berberis vulgaris), and gentian (Gentiana spp.).10 The herb may be applied externally as a poultice for wounds and ulcers as well in order to assist healing and to soothe skin.1,9
Blessed thistle is also part of the secret recipe used to make Benedictine liqueur. 3 As the story goes, in 1510, a Benedictine monk, Don Bernardo Vincelli, created the recipe for this liqueur that contains 27 different herbs, starring angelica (Angelica archangelica), hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) and lemon balm (Melissa officinalis). However, allegedly only three people on earth (at a time) know the complete recipe for making it.11
Herbal Actions: Diuretic, diaphoretic, emetic, tonic1,4 appetizer, astringent, bitter, cholagogue, emmenagogue, galactogogue, vermifuge.