The thistle is an ancient Celtic symbol of nobility of character as well as of birth, for the wounding or provocation of a thistle yields punishment. For this reason the thistle is the symbol of the Order of the Thistle, a high chivalric order of Scotland - though another story to explain this is that a bare foot Viking attacker stepped on one at night and cried out, so alerting the defenders of a Scottish castle. The thistle is not of great repute elsewhere, however: Shakespeare classes "rough Thistles" with 'hateful Docks" and, in the Bible, thistles are one of the afflictions Adam and Eve are cursed by when they are cast out from Eden. It is a noxious weed in many nations, and penalties fall on landowners who do not eradicate them, and governments eradicate thistle from the roadsides.
It is very medicinal. Milk Thistle was used to strengthen the liver the world over, and in modern times has been shown in scientific tests to be effective for many health concerns. The active chemical in thistle seems to be silymarin, but the exact way that silymarin works in the body is only beginning to be understood, however, it seems to take the place of many of the enzymes and other chemicals produced by the liver, thus relieving its burden somewhat as it detoxifies the body, allowing the body's energy to be distributed elsewhere. Holy thistle is mentioned in all the treatises on the Plague, and especially by Thomas Brasbridge, who in 1578 published his Poore Man's Jewell, that is to say, a Treatise of the Pestilence. The distilled leaves, he says "helpeth the hart...expelleth all poyson taken in at the mouth and other corruption that doth hurt and annoye the hart...the juice of it is outwardly applied to the bodie...therefore I counsell all that have Gardens to nourish it, that they may have it always to their own use, and the use of their neighbours that lacke it." Culpepper declared that a decoction of thistle in wine "being drank expels superfluous melancholy out of the body and makes a man as merry as a cricket." The Emperor Charlemagne, when his Army was afflicted by a great disease that killed thousands of his men, prayed earnestly to God, and in his sleep there appeared to him an angel who shot an arrow from a crossbow, telling him to mark the plant upon which it fell, for with that plant (a thistle) he might cure his army of the pestilence.
Fiddlehead Fern and Thistle Soup
Recipe modified from Mignonne. http://nativefood.blogspot.com
4 cups fiddleheads, fresh and cleaned
2 cups thistle leaves, stems, or flower stalks
2 teaspoons unsalted butter
1 small onion, minced
2 cups soup stock
2 cups milk or cream
Salt and pepper to taste
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the fiddleheads and thistles, return to a boil and cook until they are almost tender and turn pale green, 5 to 8 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water. Coarsely chop and reserve. Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until they become translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the fiddleheads, thistles and soup stock. Stir, increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a gentle boil. Cover and cook until the fiddleheads and thistles are thoroughly tender, about 5 minutes. Add the milk, reduce the heat to medium, and heat until nearly boiling. Do not let the soup boil or the milk will curdle. Stir in the lime zest and season the soup to taste with salt and pepper. Divide the soup into four bowls, garnish with nutmeg and serve immediately.