Cynara cardunculus vari scolymus
This is the botanical name of the artichoke, cynara scolymus is a variety of the basic species, which probably has developed naturally, and then has been further “improved” by the hand of man, already since millennia ago. Artichokes have been consumed for thousands of years in the Mediterranean area, and they are essentially a niche product, cultivated only in some areas and not very widespread as food in the areas of Europe where it would not be possible to grow them in the field.
In the past it was food only for the rich nobles, as only the central inflorescence, the largest and most fleshy, was taken from a plant.
Because each foot of scolymus artichoke produces a central floral stem, on which will bloom the biggest and most showy flower; on the lateral tufts, those developed on the side, or on the ramifications of the main floral stem, smaller inflorescences develop; once, only the biggest and fleshy artichoke was utilized, and therefore the productivity of an artichoke field was very low, rendering the vegetable a food for the chosen few.
Typically, artichokes are very much appreciated as late winter vegetables, when in many cultures they eat vegetables with a bitterish taste; in effect, the substances contained in the artichoke, which contribute also to outline its intense taste, function as purifiers of the liver, and therefore the consumption of this vegetable during the transition period from winter to spring is, without any doubt, healthy.
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Cynara cardunculus var. altilis
Over the centuries, the cynara plant has undergone many mutations, some of which occurred naturally, and only later favoured by the human hand; of the same genus as 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 it happens, for instance, for the celery, which, in the case of the thistle, is very big, with the leaves which can reach the 70-80 cm of height.
If left to develop without care, the leaves of the thistle tend to become very bitter and leathery; in order to give them a more delicate taste and a more pleasant consistency, almost crisp, a few weeks before harvesting, the legs of thistle are packed with dark paper, which does not allow sunlight to penetrate, will be discarded only when they have become lighter (as is the case with some varieties of radicchio), because of 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, are also present in the completely wild, the so-called cardoons; they are relatives of the artichoke, which produce a loose rosette, with divided leaves, equipped 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 cardoons are also cultivated, above all for a fundamental fact: the latex contained in them was and is utilized as rennet, in the production of some cheeses.
This use, besides being important in the case of particular traditional cheeses, is now becoming even more interesting, because it allows the production of cheeses that can be consumed even by vegetarians against any cruelty that is inflicted on animals, the common rennet is extracted from the intestines of calves, and therefore is definitely less respectful of animals than is the vegetable rennet.
In addition to this, wild cardoons, as well as artichokes and cultivated cardoons, contain a number of beneficial active ingredients, which is more interesting to extract from the cardoons than from other plants of the species. The cardoons are present throughout Italy, especially in sunny areas, with stony soil, and not particularly fertile, are an excellent forage for many animals that are left to graze freely.
Artichokes are very cultivated in Italy, although it is necessary to have a large area to have a production quantitatively interesting, each plant occupies up to a meter, or a meter and a half, of space in diameter, so in the flowerbed where we usually put the salad, there will be space only two or three plants of artichokes.
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 begin to develop again when the cool arrives, but an artichoke can remain productive for many years, and therefore 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 middle of summer, so that the flowers are ready for harvest at the beginning of autumn.
The artichokes are prepared in autumn, working the soil thoroughly, and enriching it with slow release fertilizers, or with mature manure; the artichokes need a good amount of mineral salts, and then further supplies of fertilizer are repeated over the months, and especially, every year, at the beginning of the growing season, which occurs in late summer or early autumn.
Artichokes are not a vegetable that can be grown throughout the peninsula, as they need a sunny area, a mild winter climate, and good humidity. Usually, they fear temperatures below zero, also because in winter they are in full vegetative development. 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 you get a well-developed plant in mid-winter, it is essential to keep the flowerbed clean from weeds, which tend to plunder the soil of water and mineral salts.
Watering should be punctual, to be supplied every time the climate is too dry, and the soil tends to dry up; for the whole vegetative season, it is advisable to supply 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 soil, we will repeat the supply every month.
Another fundamental operation in the cultivation of the artichoke is the scarducciatura; every single head of roots of artichoke, tends to produce numerous shoots, called carducci; from each of them will be produced an ample rosette of leaves, which will tend to try to predominate on the others; usually, once the carducci are well visible, in late autumn, we tend to leave only a couple for each rhizome, or at the most three, so that it is possible for them to develop at best, and therefore to give origin to bigger and fleshy inflorescences.
In some zones, varieties are cultivated which produce much ramified floral stems, but as soon as these produce the lateral floral buds, these are detached, in order to allow the central artichoke to become of very big size.
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 because of the cold, but if the climate is very mild, it is easy for numerous aphids to nest in the leaves, or even lepidoptera that lay their eggs at the base of the head.
Typically, however, the main problems encountered when cultivating artichokes are linked to the cultivation conditions and the climate: the frost can completely ruin the plants; the excessive heat, during the period of preparation of the floral buds, can cause very small inflorescences, or of an excessively leathery consistency. The lack of watering produces small artichokes and too hard; too much watering, or a very heavy soil, can favor the appearance of rottenness of the roots or the collar.
Nutritional deficiencies can lead to an excessively scarce production, both in the number of flowers and in their size.
Artichoke – Cynara scolymus: Propagating artichokes
The artichokes produce semi-woody fruits, containing the fertile seeds; these seeds may be utilized for producing small plants, which, in the following years, may be placed in the artichoke field; the seeds are usually sown by early spring, in pot, in postulants in which are placed 4-5 seeds; as soon as the small plants are sprouted, they choose for each postulator a pair of strong and luxuriant small plants, and the others are uprooted.
In autumn, the young plants of artichoke, can be already ready to be planted in the garden. Typically, however, there is a tendency to propagate these plants by taking the vegetative parts, both to be able to have plants ready in autumn, without having to cultivate the seedlings for months, and to make sure you have the certainty of producing specimens identical to the mother plant. The carducci are the basal shoots of the plant, which develop in late autumn.
Usually, each single head of roots produces up to 6-7 carducci, which will be thinned in autumn; at this moment, we choose the most beautiful and big carducci, and we position them in another flowerbed, so that they replace the plants already old or ruined in the following years. Or, as soon as the roots show signs of vegetative development, between the end of summer and the beginning of autumn, we take the future shoots, called ovules, and position them 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 eggs are small shoots, while the carducci are real small artichoke plants, even 30-40 cm high, with some well-developed roots.
So, if one of our neighbours has an artichoke cellar, we can try to ask for some carducci, so that we can try to cultivate these excellent flowers also in our garden.
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