Herbs in History: Artichoke


Cynara cardunculus L.


By Alain Touwaide & Emanuela Appetiti | May 2024

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When genetics and history meet

Now a super food, Artichoke (Cynara cardunculus L., C. cardunculus, var. scolymus (L.) Fiori) (Asteraceae) (Illustrations 1-3) has been forgotten for a long time. Though often recounted, the history of artichoke usually focuses on the mythological tale of artichoke creation and ignores the most significant facts, which can be reconstructed in a much realistic way in a rare convergence across scientific disciplines, from genetics to history and conversely.


Artichoke Artichoke

Illustrations 1-3: Artichoke

Lost in literature

None of the foundational compilations of traditional medicine mentions artichoke, from the classical Pharmacographia by the German pharmaco-chemist Friedrich Flückiger (1828-1894) and his British colleague Daniel Hanbury (1825-1875) (first published in 1874) to the three-volumes, all-embracing encyclopedia of traditional therapeutic applications of natural substances collected by the German physician Gerhard Madaus (1890-1942, Textbook of the Biological Healing Methods (Lehrbuch der biologischen Heilmittel) published in 1938. And this also includes the no-less influential and epoch-making Therapie through Plants. An Introduction to Formulae for Plant Therapy with Examples (Pflanzliche Therapie Eine Anleitung mit Beispielen zur Rezeptur Pflanzliche Therapie) first published in Leipzig in 1935 by the German physician Ernst Meyer.
Truth is that artichoke does not appear in the historical literature usually consulted to write the histories of plants, be it the medieval 14th-century Tacuinum sanitatis resulting from the translation into Latin of the Arabic Taqwim as-sihhah by ibn Butlan and lavishly illustrated in superb, de-luxe manuscripts with scenes related to the plants, or the first modern printed herbals (De Historia Stirpium commentarii insignes – Remarkable Commentaries on the Research on [Medicinal] Plants) first published in Basel in 1542 by the German physician, herbalist and commentator on ancient medical texts Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566), in which the text is complemented by naturalistic representations of the plants artfully crafted by a team comprising an artist, a woodblock-carver, and a printer. No less significant the fact that no representations of artichoke appear in the many editions of the translation of, and commentary on, Dioscorides, De materia medica by the omniscient Italian physician and classicist Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1501-1578) until the 1565 edition, which came after several others from 1544 on, in Italian, Latin, German and even Czech.

Insular origin?

Most histories tell the origin of artichoke according to ancient mythology. Cynara was a young girl living on Kinaros Island in the Aegean Sea (Illustration 4). Just like many others, she was seduced by Zeus, the god of the gods, by whom she was granted the enviable status of a goddess. In this capacity, she could live close to Zeus’ residence on Mount Olympus and take advantage of the moments when Hera, Zeus’ wife, would be away. However pleasant a life she had, Cynara soon missed her mother and was homesick. She paid a brief visit back to earth. Upon her return to the world of the immortals, she was caught by Zeus and was expulsed by him from the community of the Olympians. This was not enough: back to earth, she was transformed by Zeus into the plant that bears her name: Cynara, artichoke.

The Aegean Island of Kinaros

Illustration 4: The Aegean Island of Kinaros

Interestingly, the first sure attestation of artichoke in ancient scientific literature refers to an island, which is not the Aegean Kinaros, however, but Sicily. According to Theophrastus (371/370-287/286 BCE), the Father of Botany, artichoke was typical of Sicily. Even more: it grew only there, and not at all in Greece. This distribution is confirmed by one of Theophrastus’ contemporaries, the botanist and philosopher Phaenias (ca. 375-ca. 350 BCE).
This distribution seems to conflict with the mythological tale, since Kinaros is one of the Aegean islands. However, the tale is probably recent as it is reported by the Roman poet Horatius (65 BCE- 27 CE) and might have been tailored to explain the name of the island. This is all the more probable because the plot of the story is by no means original—it is one of the many versions of Zeus’ affairs followed by a creation myth—and might have been an ad hoc creation in a time when artichoke had become better known and more often consumed as it will appear.
Although geographical distribution as stated by the two ancient Greek botanists is not correct as we shall see, it contains a hint at the awareness of an insular origin of artichoke. The statement by Theophrastus about the absence of artichoke in Greece matches in a certain way the Sicilian location, with an origin in the west and not in the heart of the Greek World, the Aegean Sea.

However inexact this location might be, it contains some information that points to the right direction: artichoke is insular and western. According to current most advanced research, it is native to Macaronesian archipelagos (Illustration 5), with the Azores, Madeira, and Canary Islands. And from there it spread to the Western Mediterranean World, from Spain to Albania but not beyond—that is, not to Greece as the ancient Greek botanists already stated—, as well as to North-Western Africa, from Marocco to Libya. This extension up to Libya is confirmed by a short reference in the famous Conversations of Gastronomers (Deipnosophistes) by Athenaeus (170-223 CE) according to whom the soldiers of the second Greek king of Egypt, Ptolemy II Evergetes (284-222 BCE), found a great quantity of artichokes close to a river in Libya.

Native distribution of Cynara cardunculus L. according to the Plants of the World Online

Illustration 5: Native distribution of Cynara cardunculus L. according to the Plants of the World Online

Phylogenetics 1

Returning to the two Greek botanists Theophrastus and Phaenias, they designated artichoke with the term kaktos, instead of the other terms used up to their time to identify the plant.
A first glance at ancient Greek poetry, tragedy, and other literature might give the impression of some uncertainty in the identification of the plant until Theophrastus and Phaenias’ time. Such phytonym as skolumos later used for artichoke appears as early as Hesiod (8th cent. BCE), in his Works and Days—which were some prefiguration of the Farmer’s Almanach—, as does also kinaros in the tragedies of the Athenian Sophocles (5th cent. BCE). However, both were used for another plant. In Hesiod, it is a not better identified thistle that flowers in Summer, when “the cicada pours out its clear-sounding song from under its wings” (Works and days, verses 582-584). Because of these verses, artichoke has been credited with an aphrodisiac property since Hesiod considers that in Summer “women are more lascivious and men are weakest, for Sirius [= Summer heat] parches their head and knees, and their skin is dry from the heat” (Works and days, verses 586-588). And in Sophocles, kinaros is an edible cardoon as the ancient scholar and lexicographer Didymus (ca. 63-ca. 10 BCE) already pointed out. And this cardoon was consumed as early as the 6th century BCE.   
Later in Antiquity, in both the Greek and the Latin worlds, artichoke is described in the scientific literature. In Greek, it appears in the largest compendium of materia medica compiled in antiquity: De materia medica by Dioscorides (1st cent. CE), wile in Latin it is studied in the monumental encyclopaedia of natural science assembled by Pliny (23/24-79 CE): Naturalis Historia (Natural History). Interestingly, in Dioscorides (Book 3, chapter 14), it is identified with the term skolumos used by Hesiod, in a group of thistles (Book 3, chapters 8-13, where the term kinara is used as a synonym of one of those thistles), whereas, in Pliny, it is referred to under the term carduus.
Of interest also, the alimentary uses, attested from the 2nd century BCE onward, with a typical transformation. According to Pliny, the Alexandrian geographer Eratosthenes (d. 194 BCE) identified it as a foodstuff for poor people. Whereas, in the 1st century CE, Dioscorides mentions the consumption of young artichokes boiled just like asparagus without any consideration related to social status, Pliny identifies artichoke as a delicacy from Carthage and Cordoba (Book 19, chapters 152-153). It is probably no coincidence that the mythological tale of the creation of artichoke from the transformation of the young Cynara into a plant by Zeus dates to that time. It has, indeed, all the appearances of an a-posteriori creation by the poet Horatius aimed to give a pedigree to artichoke that corresponds to its upgrade in the gastronomical world, from a food of the poor to a delicacy of the wealthy aristocracy.


Illustration 6: Thistle

The sum of all these pieces of information seems to result in an impossible mosaic with an apparent confusion with thistles (Illustration 6), a shift in the use of the phytonyms skolumos, kinara and carduus, an indecision in the designation of artichoke with all the terms above in addition to kaktos, a gap in the documentation between 4th / 3rd century BCE and the 1st century CE, a late inclusion of artichoke among foodstuff, and a transformation in the status of this foodstuff.
This is where genetics comes into play, allowing to put most of the elements, if not all, together in a coherent picture. DNA sequencing of artichoke and cardoon performed by a group of the Italian Institute of Plant Genetics of the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR-National Research Foundation) led to the conclusion that artichoke and cardoon do have a common genetic history and that domestication and cultivation of artichoke started sometimes around the beginning of the Common Era (Sonnante et al. 2007).
The period of domestication that might seem in contradiction with the data above—1st century BCE/CE as per the Italian study and the period between 2nd century BCE and 1st century CE as above—does not constitute an objection as the authors of the DNA sequencing study did not check all the body of documentation brought together here, even though they did refer to historical literature. Domestication and cultivation required time to be successful and could have taken place in successive, most probably cumulative phases during the gap period in the written documentation. Only when they were completed, did their results appear in relevant treatises such as the agricultural/agronomical literature echoed by the later Greek manual Geoponika (Farm Work) compiled in the 10th century CE on the basis of earlier material going as far back as the 1st century BCE.

Phylogenetics 2

This remarkable convergence of data across disciplinary fields rarely brought together goes beyond as it also provides relevant information on the native distribution of artichoke, with a focus on the Western Mediterranean. Here, we need to remember Theophrastus’ statement about the origin of artichoke in Sicily, with the exclusion of Greece, interpreted above as a sense of insular and Western origin. This corresponds to the current identification of the native distribution of artichoke, as Macaronesian. Theophrastus obviously did not refer to these islands, but probably expressed a common feeling of his time—which probably went back to immemorial times—about a far origin, beyond the Pillars of Hercules, that is, the straight from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic.
Pursuing through times, while artichoke is not present in the post-classical literature—that of the Middle Ages, which were by no means a Dark Age—, it can be found in the botanical and medical treatises of the Arabic World, be it in Qanūn (Canon) by ibn Sina (980-1037 CE), better known in the West as Avicenna, or in the slightly posterior botanical encyclopaedia assembled by ibn al Baytar (1197-1248).
The increased presence of—and, apparently, also an increased interest in—artichoke may result from what the genetic study above identified as a second domestication. Though located “in the northern/western range of the Mediterranean” and at a time not precisely identified, but in any case, recent (commerce of artichoke in the 15th century), this second domestication might have taken place in the Arabic World, possibly in Andalusia (Islamic Spain), and before the 15th century, possibly as early as the 10th / 11th century. The Arabic World has been credited, indeed, with a Green Revolution that allegedly resulted in introducing into the Mediterranean World plant species that were previously unknown and might have come from as far as India and China, and extensively cultivating them thanks to improved irrigation techniques, among others. As the history of other species indicates, this Revolution did not consist in all cases in introducing new plants species into the Mediterranean, but rather reactivating cultivations that had been abandoned from the end of Classical Antiquity to the Golden Age of Arabic science. Artichoke was probably among these cultivated species that had been abandoned and further benefited from this revival of ancient cultivations.
A further proof of a connection between Antiquity and the Arabic World—though possibly with an interruption—is provided by the therapeutic properties attributed to artichoke in the Arabic medical and botanical literature, which substantially reproduces earlier Greek data. According to Dioscorides, De materia medica (Book 3, chapter 14), artichoke produces an abundant urine that helps eliminate unpleasant bodily smell. The information is repeated and theorized by Galen (129-after [?] 216 CE) and reappears in Avicenna’s Canon (Book 2, chapters 8-14, and 11-15). There, artichoke is also recommended “to clean, desiccate and attenuate”. More precisely, it is “beneficial for alopecia … its water kills lice … it solves swellings”. And it is supposed to be aphrodisiac according to a belief that goes way back in time.

A late revival

This renewed cultivation was followed by a second decline and absence of artichoke in the literature. It reappeared in the scientific literature of the Renaissance, but not until mid-16th century in a late revival that clearly hints at uncertain identification and, possibly also, lack of use, be it medical or culinary.
The indefatigable Mattioli did not provide a representation of artichoke until the 1565 edition of his Latin translation of, and commentary on, Dioscorides, De materia medica, with two splendid full-page illustrations, of an impressive naturalism (Illustrations 7-8). He also provided a Latin translation of many of the classical Greek and Latin texts reported above, adding the following:

Nostrates, quibus ubique nunc Hetruria scatet, eo ex Neapoli allati fuerunt, Neapolim vero (ut audio) ex Sicilia.
Our (artichokes), which are plenty now in Etruria, were introduced from Naples, actually to Naples (from what I am told) from Sicily.

Pietro-Andrea Mattioli, Commentarii in sex libros Pedacii Dioscoridis Anazarbei de Medica materia iam denuo ab ipso autore recogniti et locis plus mille aucti …, Venice: Officina Valgrisiana, 1565, pages 667 and 668

Pietro-Andrea Mattioli, Commentarii in sex libros Pedacii Dioscoridis Anazarbei de Medica materia iam denuo ab ipso autore recogniti et locis plus mille aucti …, Venice: Officina Valgrisiana, 1565, pages 667 and 668

Illustrations 7-8: Pietro-Andrea Mattioli, Commentarii in sex libros Pedacii Dioscoridis Anazarbei de Medica materia iam denuo ab ipso autore
recogniti et locis plus mille aucti
…, Venice: Officina Valgrisiana, 1565, pages 667 and 668

Interesting comment, which does not only attest to the intensive cultivation of artichokes in that time in Etruria—to be probably identified as the region north of Rome—, but also confirms the Western center of diffusion of artichoke, even though it might just be a translation of Theophrastus’ passage referred to above.
With the Pemptades (Five Books) of the Belgian Rembert Dodoens (1517-1585) (Illustration 9) and the Herball of the British John Gerard (1545-1612) (Illustration 10) artichoke appears fully naturalized in north-western agriculture and alimentation. If it has been cultivated and consumed since, without the interruptions that marked its history in the past, it has been gradually forgotten in medicine, instead, until its recent re-discovery as a unique source of health benefits.

Rembert Dodoens, Stirpium Historiae Pemptades Sex sive Libri XXX ab Auctore, paullo ante mortem, aucti & emendati . Anvers: Ex Officina Plantiniana, 1616, page 724

John Gerard, The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes … London: Norton and Whitakers, 1636, page 1153

Illustration 9: Rembert Dodoens, Stirpium Historiae Pemptades Sex
sive Libri XXX ab Auctore, paullo ante mortem, aucti & emendati .
Anvers: Ex Officina Plantiniana, 1616, page 724

Illustration 10: John Gerard, The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes
London: Norton and Whitakers, 1636, page 1153

European Medicines Agency: Artichoke Leaf, Cynara cardunculus L., syn. C. scolymus L.
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