The Heart of an Artichoke

The Story of the World’s Most Intriguing Thistle

On the 19th of June 1575, while attending a wedding, Catherine de’ Medici, who was one of the most influential figures in French history, fell suddenly ill. The prognosis? Indigestion. The culprit? Artichokes. In the artichoke’s defense, too much of anything will make you sick, and Catherine was obsessed with this thistle, which was the base ingredient of an artichoke and rooster offal pie she could not get enough of. For just over four decades, as she passed from queen of France to queen mother, she and her Italian chefs introduced France to a slew of vegetables, like spinach and broccoli, but the artichoke remained the most mesmerizing, even giving birth to the French phrase, Avoir un coeur d’artichaut, meaning when you have the heart of an artichoke, you fall in love too easily. The real question remains, though, what could account for the artichoke’s mystifying air?


Long before the arrival of Catherine de’ Medici in France, before the dominion of her Ancient Roman ancestors, Ancient Greece was the most powerful empire on earth, and the myths of their gods spread across Europe like tabloid gossip, relaying news of the exploits atop Mount Olympus like that of the British Royal Family.

One day, as Zeus emerged from the waters of the Mediterranean following a routine visit to his brother Poseidon, god of the sea, he spotted a beautiful young maiden bathing in the shallows. His philandering heart could not resist her, and so he seduced her, and swept her away to the Mount, where he made the young Cynara a goddess. It was all glamour and promiscuous parties until she began to miss her family home.

For a while, Cynara would sneak back to visit her mother and father, until Zeus caught wind of her betrayal. As was his temperament, Cynara could see lighting flash behind his eyes. Casting her from the summit, she quite literally fell from grace, on top of which he turned her into an artichoke.

Why an artichoke remains unclear, but the incident bestowed on this delectable delicacy the botanical name still used today, cynara cardunculus.


The commonly held belief amongst scientists is that the artichoke is descended from the wild cardoon, a tougher, meaner version that originated in Sicily and parts of North Africa. In Ancient Greece and Rome, the artichoke was commonly considered an aphrodisiac – and effective at securing the birth of a son. Wealthy Romans enjoyed them prepared in honey and vinegar. In modern times, there are many ways to prepare an artichoke, including steamed, dipped in melted butter or cooked in Dijon vinaigrette.

At the fall of Rome, artichokes fell out of fashion, along with other urbane practices like reading and having a bath (or both at the same time), but we have the Arabs of the time to thank for nurturing them and taking them to Spain. It is from this era that the strange name of the artichoke emerged. The Arabic was al karsufa, which the Spanish heard as alcarchofa, and the Italians redecorated as articiocco. From here, it was just a hop, skip and a jump to the French (via the scandalised Catherine de’ Medici) artichaut and the English artichoke (beloved by the womanizing Henry VIII).


Apart from its amorous reputation, the artichoke has been linked to an array of skin-healing benefits. Its extract is used in the treatment of acne, eczema, rosacea, and dry skin. The nourishing properties in its extract also protects the skin, as it is rich in polyphenols – known to reduce inflammation – as well as antioxidants. Added to that, when ingested, the dietary fibres in artichokes help keep the skin hydrated and moisturized, while its vitamin C content stimulates collagen production.


The artichoke has long been used by women of Provence to detoxify the body. Boasting purifying and detoxifying capabilities, it has therapeutic virtues that inspired L’Occitane en Provence to investigate the benefits of the artichoke as an ingredient in body care, leading them to an alternative way of considering self-care. The extract of artichoke promotes effective micro-circulation which in turn helps skin to remain plump and regain elasticity, and plant-based formulas provide the perfect nourishment for the body inside and out.