My Latin name, Silybum marianum, comes from the Greek word ‘sylibon’, meaning ‘tassel’, and the Latin word ‘marianum’, for the Virgin Mary.
Neighbouring countries have given me similar names, all of course in their own languages. In the Netherlands they call me ‘Mariadistel’, in France ‘Chardon-Marie’ or ‘Lait de Notre-Dame’, and in Germany ‘Mariendistel’.
Both my names, ‘Mary thistle’ and ‘milk thistle’, refer to my white-veined leaves.
Legend has it that while the Virgin Mary was nursing the baby Jesus, she spilt some drops of breastmilk. The drops fell onto my leaves, where milk-white streaks formed.
Long ago they also called me ‘Our Lady’s milkweed’ or ‘Our Lady’s breastweed’.
I’m called a thistle these days, rather than a weed, because I’m so prickly.
My beautiful purple flowers are well protected by large, sharp thorns. They’re not there for nothing: they stop me from being eaten by insects.
And they’ll probably tear your clothes as you brush past.