Cynara scolymus L.
Asteraceae (sin. Compositae)
History and Origins
Historical, linguistic and scientific studies seem to show that the artichoke derives from the domestication of its wild ancestor (Cynara cardunculus L.) and has been cultivated in Sicily since the 1st century.
Ancient Greeks and Romans already knew of the plant called Cynara, but it was surely a wild form. Romans pickled artichokes with honey and vinegar and seasoned them with cumin.
Its cultivation spread from Sicily to Naples and then to Florence (1466) and Venice (1493). In the XVI century Catherine de’ Medici brought it to France when she married Henry II, while it seems that the Dutch introduced it to England. It appeared in the USA at the end of the 1700s, brought to California by Spanish settlers and to Louisiana by the French.
The genus name (Cynara) has three presumable origins: from the Latin cinis (ashes), because the soil was covered with ashes before planting or because of the grey-green color of the leaves; from the mythological name of Cynara, girl with ash-colored hair, turned into an artichoke by Jove who was in love with her; from the Greek kinara, a term used for many spiny plants.
The species name (scolymus) comes from Greek; it means sharp-pointed and refers to the spiny varieties of artichoke.
Its common name comes from the Latin word articactus (from which artichoke in English, articiocco in obsolete Italian, artichaut in French) or from the Arabic words harxaf, harshaf, harshuf, kharshuff (carciofo, carcioffo, carchioffo in modern Italian and in Italian dialects, carxofa in Catalan, alcachofa in Spanish).
potassium, other active principles (cynarine, chlorogenic acid, luteolin). These compounds can be found in flower-heads, leaves and stems.
It is a medicinal plant with many pharmacologic virtues: aperient, diuretic, anti-cholesterol, hypoglycemic, laxative,
hepatoprotective, depurant, anti-eczema…
Diffusion and importance
The main production areas are in Apulia (34%), Sicily (29%), Sardinia (26%), Campania (45%) and Latium (2%).
Biologic type: large herbaceous plant; perennial thanks to its subterranean rhizome, rich in stored nutrients and
Root: its subterranean rhizome has a strong apparatus of fleshy roots that can store large quantities of nutrients. Most roots are at a depth of 0.60-0.70 m in an area more than 1 m in diameter.
Stem: of variable height (0.80 to 1.20 m according to the variety), hardy, grooved; it ends with the main inflorescence.
Leaves: lobed, pinnatifid, more or less deeply grooved; their topsides are green-grey, the undersides are greyish and
cottony. Length: 100-140 cm; weight and number (20-40) are variable according to the cultivar.
Inflorescence: it is a flower head (or calatide), with a cylindrical, conic, ovoid, ellipsoid, spherical, subspherical shape, green or violet according to the cultivar. It consists of a peduncle from which many fleshy bracts (with or without spines) arise. The edible and marketable part is the immature head. Each plant has a variable of about 10-20 heads according to the cultivar.
If the head is not harvested, bracts harden and floral structures evolve into hermaphrodite flowers (florets), tubulous, with blue petals. Cross-fertilization is mostly entomophilous.
Fruit: it is an achene with a pappus; its color (from light grey to dark brown) and weight (30-70 g / 1,000 achenes) vary according to the cultivar.
The cultivation period generally lasts 8-10 years, even though the plants can live much longer. Nowadays there is a tendency to shorten the professional crop duration for economic reasons (in some areas it lasts 1-2 to 3-4 years).
After 3-4 years, artichokes can be planted again in the same soil where they have previously been grown.
Climate and soil requirements
depends on its phenological phase: inflorescences are damaged at 0 / -4° C, leaves at – 4 / – 8° C, aerial parts at – 8 / -10° C and rhizomes at -10° C. The plant is in vegetative stasis during the summer and vegetates from autumn to spring. It is very resistant to salt.
A very important feature is its response to day length: artichoke is a typical short-day species, i.e. a species that grows different types of inflorescences according to the period and when the days become shorter, and so forms flowers at the end of winter, beginning of spring. There are day-neutral varieties however, that can bloom at the beginning of autumn as well (remontant varieties).
Soil. It is able to adapt to different types of terrain, but prefers deep soil with medium texture and a pH level of 6.5-7. In calcareous and sandy soils, artichokes are smaller and tougher. Sensitive to water stagnation, artichokes prefer elevated terrains. Soil with moderate salinity is well tolerated. High water and nutrient requirements.
Varieties and commercial types
The differences in artichoke populations (typologies) are:
– geographic origin (e.g. from Tuscany, Catania, Niscemi, Palermo, Sardinia, Liguria, Castellammare, Rome, Empoli, Provenza…);
– color: green and purple;
– presence/absence of spines: spiny and spineless;
– production season: remontant and non-remontant. Remontant varieties are revived in summer with irrigation, may start precocious yielding in mid-September and be harvested throughout winter and spring (e.g. Spinoso sardo,
Masedu, Violet de Provence).
Non-remontant varieties are late, start yielding only at the end of winter and yield until the end of June (e.g. Violetto di Palermo, Catanese, di Niscemi, Violetto di Toscana, Romanesco, Empolese, Violetto di Castellammare…).
Artichokes Brindisino, di Paestum and Romanesco del Lazio have acquired the PGI (Protected Geographical Indication)
European certification; the artichoke Spinoso di Sardegna is a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) product.
The artichoke di Perinaldo (Liguria) and the Spinoso di Menfi (Sicily) are among the “Presidi Slow Food”
Fundamentals of cultivation practices
Artichoke is usually planted using shoots or root cuttings. Shoots are buds that grow at the base of the plant and are taken from precocious and productive cultivations, 2-3 years
old, in autumn or spring (pinching out). They are the most common material for planting; if planted in autumn, more
take root than those planted in spring.
Root cuttings are subterranean ramifications of the stem; full of stored nutrients, cylindrical, with gemmae, they are taken and planted (often after pre-germination) in summer.
Other less commonly used methods: division of the stem, micro-propagation of young plants, young plants from seedbeds.
Plant density is about 1 plant/m², with rows at a distance of 1-1.5 m from each other.
It needs high quantities of nitrogen and potassium (about 300 kg/ha), particularly during differentiation and flower
Artichoke must be very well watered. Irrigation is also important for regulating summer vegetative revival and the start of the autumnal yielding when forcing the day-neutral, remontant cultivars.
The manual removal of superfluous shoots, done both in autumn and at the end of winter/beginning of spring.
Cutting down of stems
It is the removal of dry stems after the harvesting of flower heads. It is done in summer with a hoe or, in large fields,
with a specific machine. The cut should be covered with soil to avoid the drying action of the sun which affects the
vegetative recovery of the stem.
Remontant varieties can be harvested up to 20-25 times every year, while non-remontant ones are harvested 3-6
times. Main artichokes are called “mother” artichokes and are the larger and more valuable ones; “baby” artichokes grow smaller and smaller and are of a lower category.
The last harvests produce very small artichokes that are sold by weight both for the general market and for industry (to be preserved in oil).
When artichokes are harvested late, the floral structures overdevelop and the pappus appears (as with the dandelion, for example): colloquially it is said that the artichoke is hairy or hay-like (depending on the region).