The globe artichoke (Cynara scolymus) belongs to the thistle family and grew originally around the Mediterranean in southern Europe. However, it is now being successfully cultivated elsewhere in the world wherever the climate is mild and humid, and particularly in the US, with a thriving industry in California. It is grown for its edible, large, globe-like flower buds which are used in salads, its fleshy, edible leaves and the base of the globe, known as the heart.
According to Greek mythology, the artichoke came about when the god Zeus fell in love with a beautiful mortal named Cynara. He enjoyed her company so much that in order to keep her nearby for future trysts, he made her a goddess and settled her on Olympia. However she became homesick and decided to go back home for a brief visit. When Zeus discovered this, he was so furious that he flung her back to earth and transformed her into an artichoke. It is perhaps this myth that gave the artichoke its reputation as an aphrodisiac â€“ which women were not allowed to eat!
Artichokes boost the functions of the liver and gall bladder, aid digestion and help control cholesterol. Their leaves contain cynarin as well as various flavonoids, such as Luteolin, which are powerful antioxidants that can help prevent cellular damage in the liver and protect the body from free radicals to help it fight disease. Cynarin works by helping the liver to increase its secretion of bile which simultaneously reduces the cholesterol circulation. The benefits of antioxidants in the body have been widely extolled and the flavonoid, luteolin, is a free radical scavenger which helps prevent inflammation. It also promotes the metabolism of carbohydrates and boosts the immune system. Luteolin is specifically believed to help in the prevention of cancer cells.
Other dietary benefits of the artichoke are:
- It relieves abdominal pain, nausea and flatulence
- It is a mild diuretic, a cleansing and detoxifying agent (making it useful in the treatment of gout, rheumatism and arthritis)
- It is high in fibre, potassium, calcium, iron and a source of important trace elements helpful in promoting a healthy body
- Can help with weight loss by improving the metabolism.
Medical books from the Tudor era document the health benefits of artichokes and claim their usefulness in many ailments, from excessive body odour to gonorrhoea! They were commonly believed to be aphrodisiacs and to increase sexual appetite and fertility in both men and women. They are symbolically associated with the stripping away of obstacles to get to the heart of the matter.
Once a delicacy reserved for the rich, artichokes are now available to all and, with the numerous health benefits they offer, we should all be including them in our diet.