Field of Science

Artichoke - fruit or vegetable?

As an academic botanist I get to answer all kinds of sintillating questions. I once asked why all the weird and wacky botanical questions got routed to my inbox. "It's because you always have the answer." So why not share the excitement. Here's today's intellectual challenge.

Is an artichoke a fruit or a vegetable?
The person asking the question had heard that an artichoke is a flower, and wondered if that made it a fruit or a vegetable.
So what is the straight skinny on artichokes?
The artichoke is an immature (at the stage we eat it) thistle. Here's a picture of one cut down the center. In fact the name artichoke is derived from the Turkish word for thistle. When it flowers (here's a link to pictures) it's a nice big purple thistle. However to call it a flower or flower bud is not correct either.
Like all the other members of the Aster or Sunflower family, the artichoke clusters a lot of small flowers together into a head, an inflorescence, that has the appearance of a single flower, a nice way for small flowers to have a big visual impact and attract more pollinators. You can see the ovaries (little oval-shaped things) of each flower lining the cup-like receptacle, and each of these will make a single-seeded fruit called an achene. The sunflower "seeds" are actually one-seeded fruits where we discard the dry fruit and eat the seed. But thistle "seeds" are too small except for finches.
Fruits are flowers at the stage of seed dispersal, after pollination, and after development of the fruit (from the ovary) and the seeds. Some fruits are eaten at an immature stage (bush beans, okra, cucumbers) and others are eaten when the seeds are mature (tomato, apple). So if we use pollination as the dividing line, then pre-pollination flowers (broccoli) would be vegetables. But even then the flowers of artichokes aren't eaten. The part of the artichoke that is consumed is the fleshy receptacle and the fleshy bases (both sort of cream colored) of the bracts (modified leaves) that surround the flowers. And like broccoli, most of what is eaten in the artichoke are these vegetative parts associated with the flowers. So basically, the answer is artichokes are vegetable.
Wasn't that exciting?


Homaira said...

Thank you! that was exteremely informative and at the same time an enjoyable and very beneficial read. Thanks genius !

Matt DiLeo said...

Receptacle... That means strawberries are vegetables too!!!

The Phytophactor said...

Sorry can't give you that one. While it's true that flower parts are just modified stems and leaves, the somewhat arbitrary dividing line is pollination, so a fruit is the ovary and any other floral part that undergoes a post-pollination development.

Rachael (Roscata on Etsy) said...

So not to go on a tangent and cause a billion questions beginning with "Well what about...", but what about a fig? Is it a fruit?

Rachael (Roscata on Etsy) said...

So not to go on a tangent and cause a billion questions beginning with "Well what about...", but what about a fig? Is it a fruit?

1m88 said...

Knowledge gained. It't not only an answer, but also a process to learn.

Jenny said...

such a beautiful, interesting plant.

Anonymous said...

Scintillating, Professor. Just sayin'