Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Cynara! Gone with the Wind!

"I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,

Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng... "

(Ernest Christopher Dowson 1867 -1900 UK)
Artichokes buds are now in season, the “buds” of which provide bold, sculptural forms for the designer to employ. They are available in green and in burgundy, in baby varieties as well as those with large calyces. I say calyces, because the artichokes have three distinct forms throughout the year: In spring the immature buds that have not yet bloomed, and at which stage we eat them, are formed on the stem. They are spherical, comprised of a layering of bracts that have spiny tips as the flower matures. In summer, the buds open to reveal a bright rich azure flower head comprising hundreds of tiny flowers. Generally they are a stunning blue cupped in the green bowl of the massive calyx, although occasionally we offer for sale a white variety as well.

Finally in fall the heads dry out, going to seed, and present a very sculptural object that are appropriate for fall compositions.

As a food source, artichokes have been cultivated for thousands of years, originating on the southern shores of the Mediterranean. In Greek Mythology, Zeus was said to have taken a human mistress ‘Cynara’, and invited her to reside in the home of the Gods on Mt. Olympus. She had a yearning to see her mother on earth, and she duly snuck back to the village where her mother lived. As Gods are wont to do, Zeus became furious and in his rage turned her into a plant and flung the mortal down to earth where she continues to grow to this day on the island of Zinari (Kynara).

It is this Greek name that famed taxonomist Linnaeus used to denote the artichoke. It seems that the Greek name ‘Kynara’ which also means ash, is said to derive from ashes used in early cultivation, but I believe the term refers more to the striking gray color of the foliage.

The name that we use, “Artichoke”, is derived over several thousand years from the Arabic word al-kharshuf. Just as the plant migrated from Tunisia, changing as humans improved the species, making it more palatable and more productive; so did the name, resulting in alcachofa in Spain, carciofio in Italy, artichaud in France and artichoke in England.

Today, for more efficient productivity, most Artichoke varieties are planted as annuals from seed, and tend to be hybrids of cynara scolymus, whereas in earlier times the principal species were grown as perennials forming massive clumps with deep taproots, and prior to the intense cultivation that occurred in Italy in the middle ages, it seems that roots and the stalks were mostly consumed. In the Renaissance era hybrids produced the large edible globe we know today.

It seems that these products were reserved exclusively for consumption by the upper classes of men only. Apparently, the aphrodisiacal powers ascribed to the artichoke were thought to be too stimulating for women!

Catherine de Medici changed all that, and upon her arrival in Avignon, France, in the 16th century, insisted to her husband Henry II, that she would eat them, noting that young women were more forward than pages at court today

Although artichokes are an ancient foodstuff, it is often assumed that these globes are relatively new as an element in floral design, but shown here is a casual arrangement by Constance Spry (English) from the 1950’s. It would seem she was quite ahead of her time as their use practically disappeared until the late 1980’s Some fifty years later they have enjoyed a great revival, and are becoming more and more available. Look for them at your local supplier or buy them online now.

April 21

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