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Holy Thistle—-Cnicus benedictus L. (Asteraceae/Compositae)



Blessed Thistle, Carbenia Benedicta, Carduus Benedictus, Cnicus

Part(s) Used Herb

Pharmacopoeial and Other Monographs

  • BHC 1992(G6)
  • BHP 1996(G9)
  • Complete German Commission E(G3)
  • Martindale 33rd edition(G67)
  • PDR for Herbal Medicines 2nd edition(G36)


See General References G2 G6 G30 G40 G62 G64 .


Arctigenin, nortracheloside, 2–acetyl nortracheloside and trachelogenin.(1)


Several polyacetylenes.(2)


Phytosterols (e.g. n-nonacosan, sitosterol, sitosteryl glycoside, stigmasterol).(3)


Type unspecified (8%).


Sesquiterpenes including cnicin 0.2–0.7%,(4) yielding salonitenolide as aglycone,(5) and artemisiifolin. Shoot and flowering head are reported to be devoid of cnicin.(4) Triterpenoids including α-amyrenone, α-amyrin acetate, α-amyrine, multiflorenol, multiflorenol acetate and oleanolic acid.(3)

Volatile oils

Many components, mainly hydrocarbons.(6)

Other constituents

Lithospermic acid, mucilage, nicotinic acid and nicotinamide complex, resin.

Food Use

Holy thistle is listed by the Council of Europe as natural source of food flavouring (category N2). This category indicates that holy thistle can be added to foodstuffs in small quantities, with a possible limitation of an active principle (as yet unspecified) in the final product.(G16) In the USA, holy thistle is permitted for use in alcoholic beverages.(G65)

Herbal Use(G2 G6 G7 G8 G64)

Holy thistle is stated to possess bitter stomachic, antidiarrhoeal,  antihaemorrhagic, febrifuge, expectorant, antibiotic, bacteriostatic, vulnerary and antiseptic properties. Traditionally, it has been used for prpanorexia, flatulent dyspepsia, bronchial catarrh, topically for gangrenous prpgangraen prpgangren and indolent ulcers, and specifically for atonic dyspepsia, and enteropathy with flatulent colic. prpgasses


Dried flowering tops

1.5–3.0 g or by infusion three times daily.(G6 G7)

Liquid extract

1.5–3.0 mL (1 : 1 in 25% alcohol) three times daily.(G6 G7)

Pharmacological Actions

In vitro and animal studies

Antibacterial activity has been reported for an aqueous extract of the herb, for cnicin, and for the volatile oil.(6–9) Activity has been documented against prpBacillus subtilisprpBrucella abortusBrucella bronchosepticaprpEscherichia prpcoli , prpProteus species , prpPseudomonas aeruginosa , prpStaphylococcus aureus and prpStreptococcus faecalis. The antimicrobial activity of holy thistle has been attributed to cnicin and to the polyacetylene constituents.(9)

Cnicin has exhibited in vivo anti–inflammatory activity (carrageenan-induced rat-paw oedema test) virtually equipotent to indometacin.(4) Antitumour activity has been documented in mice against prpsarcoma 180 for the whole herb,(8) and against prpleucemia lymphoid leukaemia for cnicin;(8) cnicin has also been reported to exhibit in vitro activity against KB cells.(8) An α-methylene-γ-lactone moiety is thought to be necessary for the antibacterial and antitumour activities of cnicin.(8)

Lithospermic acid is thought to be responsible for the antigonadotrophic activity documented for holy thistle.(G30) The sesquiterpene lactone constituents are stated to be bitter principles.(G62)

Tannins are generally known to possess astringent properties.

Side–effects, Toxicity

None documented for holy thistle. The toxicity of cnicin has been studied in mice: the acute oral LD50 was stated to be 1.6–3.2 mmol/kg body weight and intraperitoneal administration was reported to cause irritation of tissue. In the writhing test, cnicin was found to cause abdominal pain with an ED50 estimated as 6.2 mmol/kg.(4)

Antitumour activity has been documented for the whole herb and for cnicin (see In vitro and animal studies).

Contra–indications, Warnings

None documented for holy thistle. Plants containing sesquiterpene lactones with an α-methylene-γ-lactone moiety are generally considered to be allergenic, although no documented hypersensitivity reactions to holy thistle were located. Holy thistle may cause an allergic reaction in individuals with a known hypersensitivity to other members of the Compositae (e.g. chamomile, ragwort, tansy).

Pregnancy and lactation

The safety of holy thistle has not been established. In view of the lack of toxicity data, excessive use of holy thistle during pregnancy and lactation should be avoided.

Pharmaceutical Comment

The chemistry of holy thistle is well documented and the available pharmacological data support most of the stated herbal uses, although no references to human studies were located. In view of the lack of toxicity data, excessive use of holy thistle should be avoided.


See also General References G2 G3 G6 G9 G16 G30 G31 G36 G37 G40 G43 G56 G62 G64.

  1. Vanhaelen M, Vanhaelen-Fastré R. Lactonic lignans from Cnicus benedictusPhytochemistry 1975; 142709.
  2. Vanhaelen-Fastré R. Constituents polyacetyleniques de Cnicus benedictus L. Planta Med 1974; 2547–59.( PubMed)
  3. Ulubelen A, Berkan T. Triterpenic and steroidal compounds of Cnicus benedictusPlanta Med 1977; 31: 375–377.
  4. Schneider G, Lachner I. A contribution to analytics and pharmacology of Cnicin. Planta Med 1987; 53: 247–251.( PubMed)
  5. Vanhaelen-Fastré R, Vanhaelen M. Presence of saloniténolide in Cnicus benedictusPlanta Med 1974; 26: 375–379.( PubMed)
  6. Vanhaelen-Fastré R. Constitution and antibiotical properties of the essential oil of Cnicus benedictusPlanta Med 1973; 24: 165–175.(PubMed)
  7. Cobb E. Antineoplastic agent from Cnicus benedictus. British Patent 1,335,181 (Cl.A61k) 24 Oct 1973, Appl.54,800/69 (via Chemical Abstracts 1975; 83: 48189j).
  8. Vanhaelen-Fastré R. Antibiotic and cytotoxic activities of cnicin isolated from Cnicus benedictusJ Pharm Belg 1972; 27: 683–688.(PubMed)
  9. Vanhaelen-Fastré R. Cnicus benedictus: Separation of antimicrobial constituents. Plant Med Phytother 1968; 2: 294–299