The globe artichoke (Cynara cardunculus subsp. scolymus (L.) Hegi) is a delicacy. Its flower buds and bracts are prized as a fine vegetable. The artichoke's bitter rosette leaves are considered inedible, but they contain valuable substances which relieve digestive complaints and promote liver metabolism.
Where do artichokes come from, and what do they look like?
The artichoke is presumed to be native to Ethiopia. As pictorial representations attest, it was known to the ancient Egyptians and later widespread in the Roman Empire. The plant was cultivated in Italy from the 15th century and from there spread to France and England, and in the 19th century to America as well. Today it is cultivated as a vegetable in Southern Europe, the Americas, and Asia. It grows wild throughout the entire Mediterranean region.
The artichoke belongs to the Asteraceae family. It can grow to 2 m in height; mature plants resemble giant thistles. The plant germinates in late summer and develops a rosette of sturdy leaves during the winter months. Some of the long, serrated leaves have thorns. They are light green and hairless on top, and grey and hairy on the underside.
The following spring, the pedicels sprout, each to bear one or two flower heads with scaled, fleshy bracts. The flowers are blue or purple and quite decorative. The flowering period lasts from July to August, after which the plant forms seeds that are 6–8 mm long.
Which parts of the artichoke are used in phytotherapy?
The artichoke's active ingredients are found in the plant's leaves. Unlike the tasty buds and bracts, the leaves have a bitter taste. They even have a slightly acrid and less aromatic scent than the parts of the plant used in cooking.
The leaves are harvested shortly before the flowering period and then either dried or processed to make extracts. The amount of active plant substances depends on the quality and age of the leaves.
How are artichokes used?
In ancient Rome, Pliny the Elder (CE 23/24–79) mentioned the artichoke in his writings, using the name cynara. This may sound familiar even today through "Cynar", a well-known bitter-tasting apéritif from Italy made from artichoke leaves.
The artichoke was used as a medicinal plant during the time of Charlemagne, but then disappeared from the inventory of medicinal plants for 500 years. It was the Arabs who brought their knowledge of the healing properties of the artichoke back to Europe. The plant quickly won high esteem, as it is found as a popular ornamental motif on buildings as far back as the 15th century.
From the 16th century onwards, the artichoke was a recognised medicinal plant for "congested liver, jaundice and dropsy" (The Herbal of Pietro Andrea Mattioli). However, the wrong part of the plant was recommended – the root, to be cooked in wine, which has no proven effects. Until the first half of the 20th century, however, preparations from artichoke leaves were used as a remedy to protect the liver and treat jaundice.
Today, artichoke is recommended for digestive ailments caused by a lack of bile secretion. Artichoke extracts promote digestion and stimulate the appetite. They can also help normalise hepatobiliary function, improve sugar and fat metabolism, and lower high blood lipid levels.
Which substances account for artichoke's effects?
Artichoke leaves contain three groups of active substances that are said to have pharmaceutical effects.
Caffeoylquinic acids (CCS), derivatives of caffeic acids, account for the largest proportion of active substances in artichoke leaves. The resulting cynarine stimulates the flow of bile, increases the metabolic activity of the liver cells, protects these from toxins, and influences fat metabolism.
The bitter substance cynaropicrin, which gives the leaves their bitter taste, promotes the secretion of saliva and gastric juice and stimulates appetite and digestion.
The flavonoids in artichokes, in particular the plant dye compound luteolin, have antioxidant properties.
Presumably there is a combined effect of the individual substances, as the extract as a whole has a higher efficacy than each substance has on its own.
What ailments can artichoke be used to treat in animals?
Preparations made from artichoke leaves increase the production of bile and bile acids. They inhibit free radicals and support liver function. Artichoke can therefore be very helpful for all types of strain on liver metabolism, for example following the administration of medication, during moulting, for allergies, or to help treat chronic metabolic diseases such as EMS. Artichoke can promote the digestion of fats in dogs and help diabetic dogs.
Prolonged high doses of bitter substances can lead to gastrointestinal ailments.
Caution: Do not administer artichoke preparations to animals with blocked bile ducts! Do not use artichokes on animals with Asteraceae allergies!
Sources and further reading
DAZ.online. (30. 03 2003). Von Artischockenpräparate: https://www.deutsche-apotheker-zeitung.de/daz-az/2003/daz-14-2003/uid-9494 abgerufen
- DAZ.online. (02. 02 2003). Von Arzneipflanze des Jahres 2003: Artischocke: https://www.deutsche-apotheker-zeitung.de/daz-az/2003/daz-7-2003/uid-9192 abgerufen
- Heilkräuter.de. (2021). Von Artischocke: https://heilkraeuter.de/lexikon/artischocke.htm abgerufen
- Honermeier, B., Göttmann, S., Bender, L., & Matthes, C. (11 2001). Universität Gießen. Von Die Artischocke als Arzneimittel: http://geb.uni-giessen.de/geb/volltexte/2003/1050/pdf/spf010002f.pdf abgerufen