Cynara scolymus is a member of the Asteraceae (also known as Compositae) family, the largest family of flowering plants in the world. Its stem can grow to a height of about 6 feet (2 meters) tall, dividing in branches that bear flowers at their apex. These lateral branches spread in a radial fashion around the stem up to three feet (1 meter). It produces a large, violet-green flower head which can reach 6 inches (15 cm) in size, and look very similar to those of thistles. When mature, these flower petals and fleshy flower bottoms - referred to as globe artichokes - are eaten as a vegetable throughout the world, which has led to its commercial cultivation in many parts of South and North America (chiefly California, USDA Zones 8a to 9b) as well as in Europe. It also grows wild in southern Europe.
The artichoke was used as a food and medicine by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans; in Rome, the artichoke was an important menu item at feasts. It wasn't until the fifteenth century, however, that it made its appearance throughout Europe.