Globe artichokes (Cynara scolymus) are in the Asteraceae family and though classified as a perennial herb, are also identified as a noxious/invasive weed. This is the same Mediterranean vegetable you find in supermarkets — in the garden however, it grows anywhere from four- to six-feet in height and breadth under full sun, and when left to bloom, sport beautiful spiky blue-purple heads by mid-summer. In its full glory, one can easily see the artichokes relationship to thistle, with its jagged silver-grey foliage and tufted seeds which together form an impressive deer-resistant plant. The flower stems grow straight and are terminated by a large globe-shaped flower bud of oval spiny scales tinged with purple. The bud opens in mid-summer to reveal a blue-purple mass of florets. If you're growing artichokes for their flower or simply leave a few large buds on the plant to bloom, beware of volunteer plants the following season! This plant self-sows freely and requires only average watering to germinate and produce.
Though related to thistles, the globe artichoke has been selectively bred to exclude spines on the bracts (unless planted from seed). Globe artichokes are one of the world's oldest cultivated vegetables, farmed by the Greeks and Romans as far back as 371 BC, who obtained them from the sandy shores of North Africa. According to ancient legend, the first artichoke was a lovely young girl named Cynara, who lived on the Aegean island of Zinari. The god, Zeus was visiting his brother Poseidon when he spied the beautiful young mortal. She did not seem frightened by the presence of a god, and Zeus seized the opportunity to seduce her. He was so pleased with the girl that he decided to make her a goddess, so she could be near his home on Olympia. Cynara agreed, and Zeus looked forward to his trysts with Cynara whenever his wife Hera was away. However, Cynara soon grew homesick and snuck back to the world of mortals for a brief visit. Enraged, Zeus hurled her back to earth and transformed her into the plant we know as the artichoke.
Back on Earth, artichokes were considered an aristocratic vegetable and thought to be an aphrodisiac. In fact, European women weren't allowed to eat artichokes in the 16th century specifically because of their believed aphrodisiac qualities! Extracts of the leaves and root are said to be helpful in preventing arteriosclerosis while other herbal remedies for jaundice, dyspepsia, liver insufficiency, chronic albuminuria, and postoperative anemia are claimed as well. Most recently, the discovery of cynarin within its leaves has been found to improve liver and gall bladder function, stimulate the secretion of digestive juices, and lowers blood cholesterol levels.
Almost all globe artichokes purchased in American grocery stores are grown in coastal California around Monterey because of its frost-free climate and cool, foggy summers. French immigrants brought artichokes to the US when they settled in the Louisiana Territory in 1806, but they disappeared for a time before being re-established in the Monterey area by Spaniards later in the century. Marilyn Monroe became our first official California Artichoke Queen in 1949. The frost-sensitive plants are equally deterred by heat, which opens buds quickly making the plants inedible. And, while tolerant of dry soils in areas with mild winters, such as we see in Davis, our hot summers may make production of large edible buds difficult; gardeners wishing to cultivate table specimens should remove all lateral heads when they are about the size of a large egg to encourage growth of a single large terminal head. Plants intended for vegetable production should be cut below the soil surface every five years to stimulate development of new shoots. In California, we enjoy peak artichoke production seasons in both spring and fall, though they are available year 'round. Elsewhere, artichokes are cultivated in France, Italy, and Spain.
For a listing of other edible and ornamental plants found in Davis, visit our Town Flora.