Artichokes -- Spring Season

It's not really clear where artichokes originated, but the best guess is that they are from the central and western Mediterranean.  At least that's where they are first recorded, and Sicily is often said to be the specific point of origin. It's clear that the plant which the ancient Greeks called Kinara (Latin was Cinara) is identical with the modern globe artichoke -- there are frescoes, mosaics, accurate descriptions of the plant, and even table scraps to prove that we and the ancients eat the same plant.

In really ancient times, artichoke plants -- technically thistles of the sunflower family -- just grew wild. But by the beginning of the Roman Empire -- the last few decades BC -- gardening "instruction books" told how to propagate them by seed or by cuttings. Individual plants produced artichokes from the second year of their approximate five-year life span, and plants could be found in many Roman gardens. Massive cultivation -- on the agribusiness level -- was practiced by the Arabs in North Africa, Spain, and Sicily by the 8th century AD, and it was this mass production and Arab marketing that assured that it was the Arabic name, al-qarchuf, that spread through their European markets and eventually throughout the world. Pretty much the only place in the world you can buy a "kinara" is in Greece, but you can get "artichokes", "carciofi", etc., through the linguistic cognates, almost anywhere.

In the 1600's, Spanish settlers brought artichoke plants to California, and about the same time French settlers brought them to Louisiana. Commercial production didn't really take off until the 1920's in California. Virtually every fresh artichoke sold in the US now comes from California, with 80 percent coming from Castroville, a town in Monterey County south of San Francisco. The US is the world's sixth largest produce of artichokes with only about 115 million pounds per year, and the US imports an additional 90 million pounds of canned artichokes per year, almost all of that from Spain. Since the canned product routinely is pre-trimmed (i.e., before weighing), US consumers actually eat more foreign canned artichokes than domestic fresh artichokes.

There are about 140 classified varieties of Artichoke plants, but only four varieties are grown for market in the US. At least thirty varieties reach Italian markets. Italy produces more than one billion pounds of artichokes per year, and almost all of that crop is consumed locally.

In the 4th century BC, Theophrastus, a pupil of Aristotle, who is often credited with the invention of systematic botany, described the globe artichoke and said that it was effective in the treatment of plant poisoning. In the 20th century AD, "modern" medicine discovered that phytochemicals -- caffeoylquinic acids and the acid derivatives, cynarin and luteolin -- in the leaves, buds, and flowers of the globe artichoke (cynara scolymus) "have a beneficial effect on the gallbladder, stimulate the secretion of bile in the liver, detoxify the liverÍ." In other words, the plant is good for the treatment of persons suffering from plant poisoning. In addition, extracts are used to reduce blood fats such as cholesterol and triglycerides. Artichoke derivatives are currently used both by herbalists and by mainstream medical practitioners to treat types of liver and gallbladder disorders, for the prevention of gallstones, liver diseases including those related to alcoholism, dyspepsia, chronic albuminuria, anemia, arteriosclerosis, diabetes, high cholesterol, and kidney disease. The literature is not specific about how many artichokes you would have to eat to produce effects such as those from concentrated leaf decoctions -- the beneficial artichoke phytochemicals are mostly in the leaves. Artichoke infusions and pastes are also used in skin and facial treatments, although the medical literature (as opposed to what is put out by the cosmetics industry) is pretty scanty.

The ancient Romans were less concerned with the putative medicinal value of artichokes than with their universally acclaimed efficacy as an aphrodisiac. Besides this supposed Viagraesque rush, the bud apparently was just thought to be romantic. In his Odes, especially in the first two odes of his fourth book, the famous poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus (aka "Horace") refers several times to a female consort of his youth named Cinara (artichoke, in Latin). The consort is thought to have been a real person, but the imagery is usually also taken as descriptive of the artichoke. Modern medicine has steadfastly refused to grant aphrodisiac status to cinara scolymus, but it is conceded that, if the phytochemicals are really having their broad-spectrum beneficial effects on the well-being of artichoke-eaters, the eaters may well perform better in a wide range of physical activities. Or maybe it's all just psychosomatic anyway -- eat an artichoke, and run a better race. Or maybe it's all because Marilyn Monroe, who in 1999 was voted "Sexiest Woman of the (20th) Century" by readers of People Magazine, was, in 1947, the first California Artichoke Queen.

Whatever their medicinal value, or otherwise, many people just enjoy eating artichokes. And here we are dealing only with the flower buds. Artichoke plants can be big and can produce several full-size flowers on a five-foot-tall stalk. There are longish wavy leaves, and below the leaves, growing out of the ground from the same root structure, there are small side "sucker stems" that produce "baby artichokes" -- that's really what they are called, although they have no potential to grow into "adulthood" unless they are separated and replanted.

The babies, which range from walnut to hens-egg size, are the best to use in raw salads, just wash and cut them lengthwise and serve with a little lemon juice, olive oil and salt. "Baby artichokes" are very tender and therefore donÝt ship well. If you want to try them, you pretty much have to go to where the artichokes are grown and eat them at local restaurants -- try the Cerveteri area on Italy's western coastal plain or California's Castroville area in April. The main-stem buds, which you find in markets away from growing areas, have to be cut before they bloom and are usually cooked: steamed, baked, stuffed and roasted, fried in batter or naked (Carciofi a la Giuda -- Jewish style), cooked in pasta or risotto or on pizza, boiled in soups or stews -- the ancient Romans even candied them in honey and lemon with crushed cumin seed.

Anyone can grow artichokes, as long as they have the right climate and soil. Climates can now be artificially produced in hothouses, but the soil is not so easy. First, you need very deep fertile topsoil, and that means six feet or more of loose loam or equivalent: the artichoke's tap root, which is the only part that survives into the second and succeeding years, grows down to the same depth as the above-ground plant grows in height, plus another six to eight inches. A five-foot plant will have a six-foot taproot.  The soil should also be a little salty.  Seeds have to be planted about four feet apart in gardens. Commercial growers usually plant from "divisions" (those "baby artichoke" sucker shoots) and plant in rows about three feet apart, with the plantings four feet apart down the rows. Only about half of the plants grown from seed will actually produce the edible buds and then only starting from the second year: divisions are more reliable producers and may produce the first year. Commercial growers stagger their plantings to maximize year round production, but nature soon takes a hand and the natural springtime peak in production reasserts itself. A few buds are normally allowed to bloom -- big purple flowers -- to produce seeds. The rule of thumb (green thumb in this case) is that non-commercial artichoke production is for dedicated hobbyists who are more interested in "bragging rights" than in eating artichokes. Everyone else should just head for the local supermarket or if your lucky enough to live in Italy, Spain, or California, for the local farmers' market.

Artichoke lore is well represented on the Internet. Some of the best of many available English language links are

Gourmet Sleuth:

US Department of Agriculture:

California Artichoke Advisory Board:

Artichoke History and Legends:

Thousands of artichoke recipe links:

Medicinal uses:

Horace's Odes (English):, and

All Italian agricultural production statistics (a big file) from INEA:

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