Edible Flower Buds of a Gorgeous Thistle

The globe artichoke (Cynara scolymus), also called "French artichoke" and "green artichoke," derives its common name from the northern Italian words articiocco and articoclos. This latter term is supposed to involve the Ligurian word cocali, meaning a pine cone, to which the Ligurians aptly compared the flower head of the artichoke, a kind of thistle.

Believed to be native to the western and central Mediterranean lands, the species was apparently carried to Egypt and farther eastward some 2,000 to 2,500 years ago.

Until comparatively recent times the leaves rather than the flower heads were eaten. One who is not familiar with this plant might well wonder, upon first seeing it full-grown, how either the leaves or flower heads could be eaten, since they appear rather coarse and unappetizing.

Rome, Greece, Carthage Grew Artichokes

Another form of this same species is commonly called "cardoon" (from the Latin carduus, meaning "thistle"). Of this only the young tender leaves or undeveloped tender flower stalks are eaten. These parts are grown so they will develop in darkness and thus be white and tender. It was this form of Cynara that was known to the ancient Greeks and Romans.

The cardoon, or leafy form, was grown about ancient Carthage and in Sicily, Greece, and Italy before the Christian Era. It was one of the most popular garden plants in Rome in the 2nd century after Christ, bringing a higher price than any other. It was used both as "greens" (a potherb) and as a salad plant.

This forerunner of the artichoke looks like an enormous thistle plant, as does the artichoke plant. Cardoon has been grown over all the Mediterranean countries for many hundreds of years, but was introduced into England as late as 1656 or 1658. It was being grown in America in the 18th century.

In some parts of Spain an extract of the dried flowers of cardoon was used as an agent for curdling milk for making cheese.

The first record of the modern form of artichoke, having a flower head with an edible fleshy basal structure and also bracts with edible fleshy bases, came from Naples about 1400 or a little later. From Naples this artichoke was taken to Florence and then to Venice. From Italy it was introduced into England and France.

The artichoke never became nearly so popular in England or in English colonies as in France, Spain, and the colonies settled by the French and Spanish. It is grown in the United States to an appreciable extent in only two districts: Louisiana, settled by the French; and the mid-coastal part of California, settled by the Spanish. Three varieties were mentioned in this country in 1806, certainly many years after its first use here.

Considered a Luxury in America

In the United States the artichoke is considered a luxury. Its food value is low, yields per acre are relatively small, and it is poorly adapted to most of our country because of its exacting climatic requirements. Few Americans are familiar with it, although some thousands of acres are grown, mainly in California, for a limited market.

From the early 16th century two main types have been recognized: those with conical flower heads and those nearly globular in form. The color of the outer parts of the bracts ranges from light green ("white") to purplish (or "violet") and reddish purple. Spineless forms are now preferred.

The artichoke will not "come true to seed." I have tried growing it from seeds and have learned to my sorrow how true that is. Out of several scores of plants, not one produced a really good head, and they varied widely from the parent plant in color, development of spines, and other features.

Propagated by Sprouts

The artichoke is grown as a perennial, and good varieties are propagated by sprouts that arise from the crowns of the plants in spring. The sprouts grow true to the plant from which they arise.

No flower heads are obtained in the first year of growth. If the heads are not harvested in the immature stage for food, but instead are allowed to develop fully, they produce a showy bloom like that of a thistle but larger. The petals of the myriad flowers that emerge from each head are light purplish or violet. The fleshy base from which these flowers rise is the principal edible part of the immature flower head.

The artichoke belongs to the same family as thistles, sunflowers, lettuce, salsify, chrysanthemums, and thousands of other species. The true artichoke should not be confused with the so-called Jerusalem artichoke-which did not come from Jerusalem and is not an artichoke. The Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) is native to North America, and, as its Latin name indicates, is a tuber-bearing sunflower. A few plants are occasionally grown here for the crisp, small tubers, which are pickled or made into relish.