Artichokes are ritualistic foods that demand patience, good conversation, and a glass of white wine to be truly appreciated.
Modern artichokes (Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus) have evolved from the cardoon, a plant still grown in Spain and Portugal as a vegetable for its stalks and immature buds and as a source of plant-based rennet for cheese making. Both are members of the sunflower family. Artichokes sold in grocery stores today tend to be larger than is ideal and tougher. Gardeners can enjoy a more tender and flavorful experience by growing these prehistoric-looking at home. As a health benefit, artichokes contain more antioxidants than most other vegetables.
Artichoke buds and flowers
The green or purple artichokes we eat are spiny, immature flower buds. Each artichoke is a cluster, or inflorescence, of hundreds of smaller flowers protected by modified leaves called bracts. Once these flowers bloom, the meaty bracts and the base, or heart, are too tough to eat. The lovely purple flowers are nice to look at, however.
Garden space for artichokes
Artichokes can be grown practically anywhere, but they are large plants, averaging 4 to 6 feet across, so be sure to give them room to grow. They prefer cool, moist summers (or relatively shady spots) and mild winters. Most artichokes are grown in California's central and coastal areas. While treated as annuals, artichoke plants can be grown as perennials, producing edible buds for 4 or 5 years. Under the right conditions, you may harvest as many as 30 artichokes per plant per year. Artichoke plants prefer light soil (add compost!), water in summer, and good drainage in winter.
Artichokes, temperatures, and propagation
Timing is critical when starting artichokes from seed and when selecting varieties. The heirloom varieties ('Violetta Precoce', 'Green Globe', or 'Romanesco') are very temperature sensitive and will not grow well in northern regions. 'Opera' and 'Imperial Star' are better choices for colder areas.
Traditionally, artichokes are a warm-weather crop that can be propagated vegetatively or by planting seeds. Vegetative propagation refers to division and root cuttings. Varieties that perform better through vegetative propagation include Italy’s large purple 'Romanesco', Spain’s medium green 'Blanca de Tudela', and Peru’s spiky 'Spinoso e Inguano'.
To divide an artichoke plant, simply wait for new growth to appear in spring. Sink a shovel between the new shoot and the parent plant, lifting the new growth with the shovel and transplanting it elsewhere. Root cuttings can be taken from established plants and placed in a favorable growth medium (moist soil) and allowed to create a new stem and become a complex, independent plant.
How to grow artichokes from seed
There are several varieties of artichoke that perform well when grown from seed, but it may take a period of vernalization before flowering begins. Green Harmony or Symphony and purple Opal, Concerto, or Tempo can all be grown from seed. Since artichokes have deep taproots, they are not well suited to container gardening. Seedlings need delicate handling when transplanting. It is easiest to plant seeds in the ground where you want them to give the taproot the freedom to grow deeply and without interruption. Plant artichoke seeds 1/4 to 1/2 inch deep when temperatures will be in the 70 - 75º range for a few weeks.
Artichokes are heavy feeders. Side dress each plant with fertilizer or aged compost and water it in thoroughly, rather than digging it in. Each mature plant will need 1/10 of a pound of nitrogen at the beginning of the growing season. Plants will also benefit from 1 cup of ammonium sulfate and 2/3 cup of ammonium nitrate during the harvest season. If you prefer a more natural approach, like I do, just keep mulching the area around each plant with aged compost. Blood meal can provide nitrogen.
Artichoke pests and diseases
Aphids and slugs are an artichoke plant’s most common pests. At the end of each growing season, you can thwart many of these pests by cutting the stems to ground level and covering them with mulch. Artichoke plume moths can be a problem in perennial beds. Artichoke curly dwarf is a viral disease that causes stunting and dark, necrotic (dead) spots. To avoid this problem, use only disease-free stock. Botrytis, or gray mold, is a fungal disease that occurs after extended periods of warm, wet weather.
Harvest your artichokes when they are about the size of an apple for the best flavor and tenderness.
A funny side note about artichokes: the fleshy leaves contain a chemical called cynarine that inhibits taste receptors, making water and other things taste sweeter!
Did you know that artichokes are also used to make tea and liquor?
Now you know.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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