Introducing the Milk Thistle and a few other prickly planty things: friends or foes ?

This article first appeared in The Barefoot Horse magazine Issue 16 (Sept 2018)

At this time of the year the track is looking its best; gone are the ruts made by vehicles in the mud over the winter; away goes the near constant need to feed from our reclaimed apple boxes; in comes the dried remains of poo piles after the crows have demolished them and spread them around with their beaks for the sun to desiccate and make easier to collect; in comes feeding hay in small piles from the ground; in comes the abundance of wild flowery things and ‘wild’ planty things that we’ve so carefully ‘flung’ all over the ground. The cycle of the year moves inexorably on and the crab apple blossoms have come and gone leaving their small, hard fruits on the trees (they can be used to add pectin to jams and jellies soon) and the preparations for winter are already under way. We’ve just completed the surfacing with road plainings of ‘Hell Corner’ on the track where the heavy vehicles (hay and muck man) would have their wheels dig into the unsurfaced alluvial clay soil and cause problems with ruts and steering around the corner. The branches of the large apple tree that skewered the hay wagon’s load that one time in the pouring rain, meaning that we had to carry 100 bales across the field have now been cut right back to allow a freer access. I was reminded by Facebook the other day that I’ve been writing these articles for over a year now – tempus fugit eh !

Given the right mindset poo picking on the track can be almost a spiritual thing, a Zen like activity where there is little need to attend a Mindfulness course because it’s right there with wheelbarrow and rake. There’s a pattern of activity that we all fall into in the morning: I go and say, “Hello” to all the horses, Chiron Horse has his bum scratch having pointed his derriere in my direction, Charlie and Amber are inevitably occupying the small shelter keeping the others out (why they can’t use the big shelter is anyone’s guess !), Hamish the Shetland is eager to be ‘one of the big horse gang’ and hangs around them and Ted and Phoebe hang around on the periphery of it all. I get the poo picking under way and nine times out of ten Chiron Horse tags along as he knows that on the way, somewhere, I’ll pick him some Sow Thistle or Hawthorn or Yarrow. We’ve planted some onions under part of the Leckie fence this year but he isn’t interested in them – they’ll soon be ready though.

Today I went to dead head the roses by the fence and, to my surprise, I spied the most beautiful Milk Thistle plant in the grass. I knew that we’d planted some seeds earlier in the year but sometimes these things take two years to come up. This one wasn’t as big as some get (about 18” tall) but it had the most spectacular white veined leaves and a beautiful flower head to it. The Milk Thistle is a very architectural plant. We have other thistles in, and around the track, and all of them can be eaten by the horses and, so I’m led to believe by the hoomans as well. It must be said though that some thistles are easier to collect and prepare than others so gloves may be required and especially for the Spear Thistle which has ferocious spines guarding the plant from those who would seek to try and nibble its leaves and flower. Last year Chiron Horse, and others, ate down to the ground our Milk Thistle plants as they were in easy access and it doesn’t take much reading around to know why.

The Milk Thistle is happy to share space with others. Here it’s with some Chamomile.

The Milk Thistle is happy to share space with others. Here it’s with some Chamomile.

The Milk Thistle, or to give it its proper name of Silybum Marianum (yes Chiron Horse likes his ‘silybum’ scratched each day – that’s a botanical joke right there – or not !) can be found in most parts of the UK (though rare in Scotland) on waste ground and close to buildings. There are those who consider it the most important medicinal plant of the genus. It can grow to around 5’ tall and has white veined verdant green leaves that have spines on the outside edge of them and are well cut into. Like most thistles the thick stem is the part that can be eaten by us and, with some care, taking off the outsides of these parts reveals an inside that can be cooked in butter like asparagus, put into stir fry and eaten steamed as a side vegetable. The leaves can also be eaten – best when they’re young and a bit more delicate than the leaves of the plant that Chiron and I found – and can be added to salads or, again, steamed. The roots ca be eaten and prepared as one might do with salsify. The heads of the plant can be prepared like an artichoke before flowering occurs but after flowering the seeds are a favourite of the gold finch – they also like Teasels of which we have plenty as well and were planted for this lovely bird to eat in the winter. However, it’s medicinally that the Milk Thistle excels.

The power of the plant medicinally can be seen in all parts of it above and below ground. The main uses being to do with conditions that affect the liver and blood. Culpepper suggested boiling the roots and seeds together for conditions related to jaundice as well as the plague. Now, the plague may not be something that most folk are concerned about these days, however, conditions affecting the liver are common in both humans and horses. Right now there’s a whole heap of articles on social media about the dangers of Ragwort to horses and this relates to its effect on the liver and associated damage that can cause death in extreme cases. Putting aside some of what might be considered as ‘hysteria’ about this planty thing and maybe leaving some of the myths associated with it for another article (if I’m brave enough to write it that is !) could it be that horses are keen to eat the Milk Thistle because of conditions associated with the blood and the liver ? Although it’s well recognised in human herbal medicine it’s less so in equine medicine. Maybe it’s something a keen MSc student could take forward to test as this would be a great benefit to horse owners. Another MSc student might also like to look at one of the other benefits of this plant and that’s to do with milk production for nursing mothers (that’s odd we write that isn’t it as it’s pretty damn near impossible to have a ‘nursing father’ isn’t it !). The Milk Thistle has long been seen as having the effect of increasing milk production when nursing. This goes all the way back to it’s Latin derivation which relates to the milk of the Virgin Mary being spilt on it’s leaves and maybe even the appearance of the plant that might give us a clue as to its uses – with ‘milk’ veins in the leaves. So, could the Milk Thistle also be used to support nursing mares ? Well certainly the seeds can be found in some tack shops as a feed supplement and many horses self select all parts of the planty thing when it’s offered to them – if the experience that we have in the horses devouring it then it certainly shows they enjoy eating it even though none are ‘nursing mares’. It’s interesting when one starts asking questions isn’t it – okay it’s just me then ! The Sow Thistle is also seen as a planty thing that can hep nursing conditions but this isn’t a real ‘thistle’ at all but part of the dandelion family.

It’s such a strikingly beautiful planty thing with its purple flower and verdant green leaves with white, milky veins in them.

It’s such a strikingly beautiful planty thing with its purple flower and verdant green leaves with white, milky veins in them.

Whilst references to human medicinal uses and possible links to equine health/wellbeing are evident the medicinal value of this, and other thistles of the ‘plume’ variety are important to horses. We noticed that our horses very carefully removed the flower heads of all the types of flowering thistles hat we have around the track last year. It appears that these contain important anti microbial properties. Compounds form plume thistles have been shown to inhibit the growth of such common bacteria as Staphlococus Aureus, Escherichia Coli and Aspergilus Niger which is a fungal infection that can be found in bedding and hay and affects the eyes of Cushings affected horses. The flower heads may also help the digestion of glucose and lipids in the gut by activating important anti-oxidants, utilize Vitamin C, help to produce collagen and even reduce anxiety and promote calmness. You see whether you think that horses ‘just like the taste’ or they have some sort of in-built understanding of what is required for health they seem to have an ability to find just what’s needed. Clever horses !

So, next time you put that metal blade on your strimmer to get rid of ‘those blasted thistles’ in your paddock just pause a minute. It may be that some of those prickly planty things might actually help your horse. They’re not only architectural and good to look at, they’re great for the birds and insect life, they’re edible for us humans (with some care) and for our horses they have a multitude of possible benefits. Yes, they may take over if you let them but when kept in check they can help us all in some way or another. Slow down and take another look at the Milk Thistle and other plumed thistles and watch what your horses do around them before you fire up that strimmer ….

Thanks for reading !

Milk thistle flower head.JPG