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The artichoke is a perennial herbaceous plant, belonging to the genus cynara, species cardunculus; produces a large rosette of large leaves, gray-green, which can reach a meter in height, or even more. The basal leaves are large, opaque, with a divided margin; the roots are rhizomatous, and from each head more rosettes are produced; from the center of the rosette a fleshy stem develops, erect, more or less branched, which at the apex carries oval leaves, sometimes provided with thin pale spines; at the beginning of spring at the apex of the stems large inflorescences begin to appear, called calatids, of roundish or elongated shape, which are the edible part of the plant. The artichokes belong to the family of asteraceae, and like these their inflorescence is a flower head (like a daisy) which has a fleshy base, on which the small tubular flowers are present, which when they bloom are pink or purple; around the flowers there are thick fleshy or leathery bracts. The edible part, of the inflorescence still not blossomed, is constituted by the receptacle on which the flowers are inserted and by the most tender part of the bracts. The actual flowers, which are located at the center of the inflorescence, constitute what is called the beard of the artichoke, and which is removed to cook the flower. The more the inflorescence develops, the more the beard tends to become thick and leathery; therefore it is important to consume the artichokes shortly after the harvest, to prevent the flowers from becoming large and the protective bracts to thicken. In a blossomed artichoke the edible part appears to be very small. Artichokes are a very popular vegetable in Italy, also because it is a traditional vegetable, as it derives from plants of Mediterranean origin, which through hybridizations and selections occurred over millennia, have led us today to have many varieties of artichokes : some are perfectly round, with an almost non-existent beard (the so-called mothers, or violets, Roman); others are elongated, and at the apex of the bracts are large thorns (like the Sardinian artichokes); some produce lots of tiny sized inflorescences (like the artichokes used to preserve them in oil).
Cynara cardunculus vari scolymus
This is the botanical name of the artichoke, cynara scolymus It is a variety of the basic species, which probably developed naturally, and then was further "improved" by the hand of man, already starting from millennia ago. The artichoke is in fact consumed for thousands of years in the Mediterranean area, and essentially remains a niche product, cultivated only in some areas and not very widespread as a food in areas of Europe where cultivation in the field would not be possible. Once it was food only for the rich nobles, since from a plant only the central inflorescence was taken, the largest and most fleshy. Because each scolymus artichoke foot produces a central floral stem, on which the largest and most striking flower will bloom; on the lateral heads, those developed alongside, or on the ramifications of the main floral stem, smaller inflorescences develop; once only the largest and fleshy artichoke was used, and therefore the productivity of a field of artichokes was very low, making the vegetables a food for a select few. Typically, artichokes are much appreciated as an end-of-winter vegetable, when bitter-tasting vegetables are eaten in many cultures; in fact the substances contained in the artichoke, which also contribute to delineating the intense flavor, work as purifiers of the liver, and therefore the consumption of this vegetable during the transition period of winter to spring is certainly healthy.
Cynara cardunculus var. altilis
The cynara plant has undergone many mutations over the centuries, some occurring naturally, and only later favored by the human hand; of the same genus of the artichoke we find another niche vegetable, very particular, but also very appreciated; it is the cultivated thistle. This cardunculus produces a compact rosette, whose leaves are thick and fleshy, erect or arched, and have a very large central rib which is used as a vegetable. The rosettes develop to form a real leg, as happens for example for celery, which in the case of the thistle is very large, with leaves that can reach 70-80 cm in height. If left to develop without care, thistle leaves tend to become very bitter and leathery; in order to give them a more delicate taste and a more pleasant, almost crunchy consistency, a few weeks before harvesting the thistle legs are bagged with dark paper, which does not let sunlight in; they will be discarded only when they have become clearer (as happens for example with some varieties of radicchio), due to the fact that their development is slowed down, and the lack of sunlight does not allow photosynthesis.
Cynara cardunculus var. sylvestris
In Italy, and throughout the Mediterranean area, the so-called thistles are also present in the completely wild state; these are relatives of the artichoke, which produce a loose rosette, with divided leaves, with thorns at the apex of each loop; the stems are branched, and often slightly twisted, and carry small inflorescences, vaguely reminiscent of artichokes, but with the part consisting of flowers certainly much greater than that consisting of bracts. The thistles are also cultivated, above all for a fundamental fact: the latex contained in them was and is used as a rennet, in the production of some cheeses. This use, besides being important in the case of particular traditional cheeses, today is becoming even more interesting, because it allows the production of cheeses that can also be consumed by vegetarians opposed to any cruelty that is inflicted on animals; common rennet is extracted from the intestines of calves, and therefore it is decidedly less respectful of animals than is vegetable rennet. In addition to this, wild thistles, as well as artichokes and cultivated thistles, contain a series of beneficial active ingredients, which are more interesting to extract from thistles than from other plants of the species. The thistles are present a little throughout Italy, especially in sunny areas, with stony soil, and not particularly fertile; they are an excellent fodder for many animals that are left to graze freely.
Artichokes are widely cultivated in Italy, although it is necessary to have a large area available to have a quantitatively interesting production; every single plant takes up to a meter, or a meter and a half, of space in diameter, therefore in the flowerbed in which we usually put the salad, only two or three artichoke plants will find space. Typically the development of these plants takes place in the cool period of the year, from autumn to spring, and when the heat arrives the plants lose their aerial part, which will start to develop again when the cool comes; but an artichoke farm can remain productive for many years, so perhaps it is worth dedicating a part of the garden to the production of these vegetables. The re-flowering varieties, which produce many small heads, are often grown for autumn production, as is the case for some particular varieties: the plants are pushed to vegetate already in the height of summer, so that the flowers are ready for harvesting beginning of autumn. The artichoke is prepared in autumn, working the soil thoroughly, and enriching it with slow release fertilizers, or with mature manure; the artichokes need a good quantity of mineral salts, and therefore further supplies of fertilizer are repeated over the months, and above all, every year, at the beginning of the vegetative period, which occurs at the end of summer or at the beginning of autumn. Artichokes are not a vegetable that can be grown throughout the peninsula, as they need a very sunny area, a mild winter climate, and good humidity. Generally they fear temperatures below zero, also because in winter they are in full vegetative growth. In areas with cold winters, it is possible to try to cultivate artichokes in a protected area of the garden, covering them at the arrival of the coldest temperatures.
From the beginning of their vegetative development, in autumn, until a well-developed plant is obtained in the middle of winter, it is essential to keep the flower bed clean from weeds, which tend to prey on the soil with water and mineral salts. Watering must be punctual, to be provided whenever the climate is excessively dry, and the soil tends to dry up; throughout the growing season, it is advisable to provide a fertilizer rich in nitrogen: if we choose a slow release fertilizer, we will repeat the supply every 3-4 months; if instead we use a product of rapid dissolution in the ground, we will repeat the supply every month. Another fundamental operation in the cultivation of the artichoke is the peeling; every single head of artichoke roots tends to produce numerous shoots, called carducci; from each of them a large rosette of leaves will be produced, which will tend to try to predominate over the others; usually, once the carducci are clearly visible, in late autumn, there is a tendency to leave only one pair for each rhizome, or at most three, so that it is possible for them to develop at their best, and thus give rise to more inflorescences large and fleshy. In some areas varieties are grown that produce highly branched floral stems, but as soon as these produce the side floral buds, these are detached, to allow the central artichoke to become very large.
Pests and diseases
The winter development of the artichoke allows this plant to grow without the threat of many insects, which tend not to develop due to the cold; though the climate is very mild, it is easy for numerous aphids to nestle among the leaves, or even moths that lay their eggs at the base of the flower head. Typically, however, the major problems encountered when artichokes are cultivated are related to cultivation conditions and climate: frost can completely ruin plants; excessive heat, during the preparation of floral buds, can cause inflorescences of very small dimensions, or of an excessively leathery consistency. The lack of watering produces small and too hard artichokes; excess watering, or a very heavy soil, can favor the appearance of root or collar rot. Nutritional deficiencies can lead to excessively low production, both in the number of flowers and in their size.
Artichoke - Cynara scolymus: Propagate the artichokes
Artichokes produce semi-woody fruits, containing fertile seeds; these seeds can be used to produce small plants, which in later years can be planted in the artichoke field; the seeds are usually sown in early spring, in pots, in postarellas in which 4-5 seeds are placed; as soon as the small plants have sprouted, a couple of strong and luxuriant seedlings are chosen for each postarella, and the others are eradicated. In autumn, the young artichoke plants may already be ready to be planted in the garden. Typically, however, these plants tend to propagate by picking up vegetative parts, both to be able to have plants already ready in autumn, without having to cultivate the seedlings for months; both to ensure that you are sure of producing specimens identical to the mother plant. Carducci or ova are then taken; the carducci are the basal shoots of the plant, which develop in late autumn. Usually every single head of roots produces up to 6-7 carducci, which will be reduced in autumn; at this time we choose the most beautiful and large carducci, and position themselves in another flower bed, so that they replace the old or ruined plants in the following years. Or, as soon as the roots show signs of vegetative growth, between the end of summer and the beginning of autumn, future shoots, called ova, are taken and positioned as if they were already developed plants. The difference between the two methods consists first of all in the period of the year in which the two methods are practiced: the eggs are the shoots from which the carducci will develop in the following months. In addition to this, the ova are small shoots, while the carducci are real small artichoke plants, even 30-40 cm tall, with some well-developed roots. So if one of our neighbors has an artichoke, we can try to ask for some carducci, so that we can try to grow these excellent flowers also in our garden.
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