A Brief History of Artichokes
Artichokes probably aren’t in your garden or the first item on your grocery list, but maybe they should be.
The artichoke is a somewhat pointy, scaly, edible thing. It is a vegetable, each one consisting of an immature inflorescence harvested from the top of a Cynara cardunculus L. plant. The artichoke is native to the Mediterranean region where it is widely cultivated, especially in Spain, France, and Italy, and grows naturally in many surrounding places. Do not confuse the globe artichoke with the Jerusalem artichoke, which is a root vegetable taken from a member of the same plant family.
If the flowers are allowed to fully develop, it becomes clear that artichokes are a kind of thistle, in the family Asteraceae. The flower head is a capitulum, made of many smaller florets, similar to what is seen in sunflowers and other members of the aster family.
Although all parts of the plant are edible, it is generally only the flower heads that are eaten, the tender young bracts and the central heart being the desirable parts. Once the blooms appear, the flower head becomes tough and inedible. Who would want to eat a thistle? It might not be a bad idea to leave one bloom per plant intact though, just so the attractive purple flowers can tempt bees.
Artichokes were much prized by the Greeks and the artichoke was long considered a delicacy in Europe. An interesting myth tells the story of the beautiful human Cynara who was desired by Zeus. Things didn’t work out and Zeus flung Cynara to the Earth, transforming her into an artichoke plant in the process. Sources are inconsistent, but the artichoke was first clearly mentioned in human writings sometime between 300 and 800 BCE. Long known as cardoons, the first artichokes were most likely C. cardunculus flower heads collected from the wild.
Through artificial selection, the cultivated variety, known as the globe, green, or French artichoke, Cynara cardunculus var scolymus came about. It is taller, less spiny, with larger flower heads than its wild cousin. The plants require plenty of room to develop flower buds so the plants must be thinned occasionally for the highest productivity. Seeds do not always produce plants true to form so vegetative propagation of divided crowns or rooted shoots is preferred.
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The artichoke is a perennial, able to produce flowers for five to 15 years depending on conditions. However, in colder climes they are often grown as an annual. Cultivars specially bred for early flowering are grown from seed each year with each plant producing five to 10 buds. More mature plants grown in warm parts of the world or that survive mild winters can produce up to a dozen buds per year.
With a flavor often described as sweet and nutty, the artichoke is often eaten by itself, boiled, steamed, or grilled, with butter, or stuffed with any number of savory ingredients. The hearts are pickled and put up in jars. Nutritionally, artichokes cover a lot of bases.
They contain zero fat and are low in calories, a result of the fact that the tougher parts of the flower head remain uneaten. You’d have to consume a quite a few artichokes if you wanted to load up on carbs.
The health benefits of artichokes are substantial. They are a good source of fiber, vitamins A, C, and K, folate, potassium, copper, magnesium, manganese, and phosphorus, and a decent source of iron. A single medium sized artichoke contains about 3.5 grams of protein.
Artichokes contain some interesting secondary compounds. They contain antioxidants such as luteolin in higher concentrations than most other fruits or vegetables. Artichoke extracts have shown benefits in lowering cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar, and in improving digestion. Artichokes are not nightshades, but they do contain alkaloids more generally associated with the family Solanaceae. Small amounts of solanine are present but you’d have to eat a quantity of artichokes beyond what would be enjoyable before experiencing any symptoms. So, no need to worry. Artichokes are good and come with an interesting mythological backstory that includes Greek gods.
Written by Philip McIntosh | Science & Technology Writer, Teacher