Posted on March 26, 2010
The origin of artichokes is unknown, though they are said to have come from the Maghreb (North Africa), where they are still found in the wild state. The seeds of artichokes, probably cultivated, were found during the excavation of Mons Claudianus in Egypt during the Roman period. The various names of the artichoke in European languages all ultimately come from Arabic al-kharshuf (approximate spelling) . The Arabic term Ardi-Shoki (ارضي شوكي) which means “ground thorny” is a folk etymology of the English name. The cardoon, a naturally occurring variant of the same species, is native to the Mediterranean, even though it has not been mentioned in extant Classic literature. Artichokes were cultivated in Sicily during the Greek occupation, the Greeks calling them kaktos. In this period the leaves and flowerheads, which cultivation had already improved from the wild form, were eaten. The Romans, who called the vegetable carduus received the plant from the Greeks. Further improvement in the cultivated form appear to have taken place in the Muslim period in the Maghreb, although the evidence is inferential only.
Globe artichokes are known to have been cultivated at Naples around the middle of the 9th century. Modern scholar, Le Roy Ladurie, in his book Les Paysans de Languedoc has documented the spread of the artichoke:
“The blossom of the thistle, improved by the Arabs, passed from Naples to Florence in 1466, carried by Phillippo Strozzi. Towards 1480 it is noticed in Venice, as a curiosity. But very soon veers towards the north-west…Artichoke beds are mentioned in Avignon by the notaries from 1532 onward; from the principle towns they spread into the hinterlands…appearing as carchofas at Cavaillon in 1541, at Chateauneuf du Pape in 1553, at Orange in 1554. The local name remains carchofas, from the Italian carciofo…They are very small, the size of a hen’s egg…and are still considered a luxury, a vaguely aphrodisiac tidbit which one preserved in sugar syrup.”
The Dutch introduced artichokes to England, where they grew in Henry VIII’s garden at Newhall in 1530. They were brought to the United States in the 19th century, to Louisiana by French immigrants and to California by Spanish immigrants. The name has originated from the Arabic al-kharshof, through a Northern Italian dialect word, articiocco.
Today, Globe Artichoke cultivation is concentrated in the countries bordering the Mediterranean basin. The main producers are Italy, Spain, and France. In the United States, California provides nearly 100% of the U.S. crop, and approximately 80 percent of that is grown in Monterey County; there, Castroville proclaims itself to be “The Artichoke Center of the World”, and holds an annual festival at which artichoke ice cream is served. The cultivar ‘Green Globe’ is virtually the only kind grown commercially in the U.S.Artichokes can be produced from seeds or from vegetative means such as division, root cuttings or micropropagation. Though technically perennials which normally produce the edible flower only during the second and subsequent years, certain varieties of artichoke can be grown from seed as annuals, producing a limited harvest at the end of the first growing season, even in regions where the plants are not normally winter hardy. This means that home gardeners in northern regions can attempt to produce a crop without the need to overwinter plants with special treatment or protection. The recently introduced seed cultivar ‘Imperial Star’ has been bred to produce in the first year without such measures. An even newer cultivar, ‘Northern Star’, is said to be able to overwinter in more northerly climates, and readily survive sub-zero temperatures.
Commercial culture is limited to warm areas in USDA hardiness zone 7 and above. It requires good soil, regular watering and feeding plus frost protection in winter. Rooted suckers can be planted each year so that mature specimens can be disposed of after a few years, as each individual plant only lives a few years. The peak season for artichoke harvesting is the spring, but they continue to be harvested throughout the summer, with another peak period in mid autumn.
When harvesting, they are cut from the plant so as to leave an inch or two of stem. Artichokes possess good keeping qualities, frequently remaining quite fresh for two weeks or longer under average retail conditions.
Apart from food use, the Globe Artichoke is also an attractive plant for its bright floral display, sometimes grown in herbaceous borders for its bold foliage and large purple flowerheads.