Consider the Artichoke

Illustrations by Kelsey Nollette

Jeanne DeNoyer Osnas, ’02, was already enjoying her plant taxonomy course when instructor Katherine Preston, then a postdoc, did something that really took the cake: She baked one, using the ingredients she was teaching about.

“I think [Jeanne] was the only one who was really into that,” says Preston, now the associate director of Stanford’s program in human biology.

From those humble seeds came a blog and a plan for a book. The Botanist in the Kitchen is where Preston and Osnas dissect, analyze and appreciate the plants we eat. 

“[It’s] an excuse to answer questions that I personally have,” says Osnas, principal investigator for vegetation ecology at the Alaska Center for Conservation Science at the University of Alaska–Anchorage. Among the bloggers’ recent subjects? Arguably the weirdest plant on our plates this spring: Cynara cardunculus variety scolymus—aka the artichoke. Some of its secrets:

It’s part of the sunflower family and has 20,000 close relatives, including dandelions and lettuce. 

It got all choked up when evolution pushed the sunflower family’s flowers into one head, creating a smorgasbord for pollinators. You’re eating a flower bud—or rather the support structure around hundreds of immature flowers.

Do not call the leaves “petals.” Those are bracts. The spiny involucral bracts, intended to deter herbivores, are the ones you peel off and dip into your fat calories of choice. 

The receptacular bracts are the hairy ones you scrape off the heart (where tubular lavender flowers would develop); they’re designed to irritate the throats of would-be munchers.

The bracts form a Fibonacci spiral. That’s Math for a spiral that gets wider by a factor of φ (1.61803 . . . ) for every quarter turn it makes. Or, for those of us who prefer to speak Fuzzie, pass the butter.

Just like the rest of us, plants use sugar, and they often store it in large molecules (that’s where we get starch). Artichokes store sugar in inulin molecules. Humans don’t digest inulin—but our gut microbes do. So, inulin is good for your gut health and can aid in calcium uptake, but it can also make you gassy.

That bitterness? It makes other things taste sweeter. It’s a compound called cynarin, and it can transfer to other foods, so wash your knife and cutting board after subduing the artichoke. Cynarin is also why many say artichokes don’t pair well with wine. Our botanists disagree. They enjoy theirs with a riesling or gewürztraminer.


Summer Moore Batte, ’99, is the editor of stanfordmag.org.