Anyone who makes the climb from Haría - the Valley of a Thousand Palm Trees in the north of Lanzarote - to the El Risco hill, will not only be rewarded with one of the finest views the island has to offer, over Famara to the islands of La Graciosa and Alegranza, but will also discover a very special plant. This is where the wild artichoke grows, the original form of the culinary artichoke and also of the cardoon, which has edible stems often used in cookery.
In theory, the wild artichoke is just as good to eat as its upmarket sister on the greengrocer's shelves, but in practice its yield of edible buds is so meagre that it really isn't worth the effort of preparing it for the pot. On the contrary, in Lanzarote the rule is “hands off our endemic plants!” The extremes of the weather make it hard enough for them to survive, without people helping themselves, and the few remaining specimens would certainly not be there today if they were not protected under conservation laws.
The fact that these members of the thistle family were nominated "medicinal plant of the year" in 2003 shows that there is indeed a commercial market for them. They contain special flavonoids and quinic acid derivatives which are said to stimulate the appetite, aid digestion and lower cholesterol levels. The bitter substance contained in artichokes is called cynarin. It aids the metabolic functions of the liver and gall bladder, and also gives the dark brown aperitif cynar its name. It is a liqueur with an alcohol content of 16.5%, and is most popular in France, although it was actually invented in1953 in Padua, Italy. The ingredients of this beautifully flowering member of the Asteraceae family (asters) have other uses, too. Artichoke leaves are also effective in juices, teas, dried extracts and tinctures.
The artichoke is an ancient agricultural plant, and was used by the Egyptians as long ago as 500 BC. It was later brought to Europe by the Arabs. The Arabic name for it is "al-harsuf", meaning thistle-like plant. The Romans also used it as a culinary and medicinal plant, and in the 15th century it became fashionable in the upper echelons of society in England and France. Goethe praised it for its aphrodisiac powers - it was one of the privy counsellor's favourite foods, and he instructed his lover and later wife Christiane Vulpius to cultivate it in the garden of their house in Weimar. We do not know what it was that led the famous poet to ascribe this effect to the artichoke. Perhaps it was the manner in which the flesh was sucked out of the leaves which gave Goethe an appetite for something more, or perhaps the fact that artichokes can affect our taste nerves, for example making mineral water seem sweet. Modern science has been unable to find any evidence of the thistly plant's ability to increase virility.
Those who wish to use artichoke extracts should always obtain products from the chemist if they do not grow the plant themselves. In any case, it is not only very difficult to extract the sap from the fresh leaves, but it has to be used straight away. Remember, you are not allowed to pick the plants which grow wild in Lanzarote, but you could always take a few seeds from the wild artichoke to sow in a small pot, and plant them out later. Then you will be able to squeeze fresh artichoke juice yourself, and also enjoy the beautiful cut stems in your flower arrangements.
"Cardoon" or "Cynara cardunculus L."
Distribution: All Canary Islands; on Lanzarote mainly on El Risco above Haría
Flowers: June, July
Extracts of artichoke promote the formation and flow of bile and are primarily used in the treatment of digestive conditions characterised by feeling bloated, loss of appetite, flatulence or nausea, and irritable bowel syndrome. Taking extracts of artichoke also has a positive effect on blood fat levels. It lowers cholesterol and triglyceride levels and the increases the proportion of "good" cholesterol (HDL) to "bad" (LDL). It also has antioxidant and hepatoprotective properties.&nb