Just outside the door of our store grows a dramatic artichoke plant. I watch and listen to visitors as they try to identify the plant — I’ve heard everything from rhubarb to milk thistle. Folks are flabbergasted when they find out it’s an artichoke.
The plant: Just outside the door of our store grows a dramatic artichoke plant. I watch and listen to visitors as they try to identify the plant — I’ve heard everything from rhubarb to milk thistle. Folks are flabbergasted when they find out it’s an artichoke. Those who guess milk thistle are close to correct because the artichoke is a perennial in the thistle family. This plant has large, soft, silvery leaves.
The artichokes you eat are the flower buds from this plant, harvested before they bloom. Left to mature on the plant, buds blossom into brilliant purple, fuzzy, thistle-looking flowers. I grew up eating artichokes the Italian way … stuffed with bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese, then steamed until tender. I love them so much it was one of the first plants I put in at my house 20 years ago. One plant lived 15 years before a fast-growing ficus snuffed it out.
Globe artichokes are native to Sicily and Tunisia. Early on, they were thought to be aphrodisiacs, with the privilege of eating them reserved for men only. Catherine de Medici of Tuscany loved them and didn’t conform. She made sure her staff of Italian chefs prepared them in her new home in France as wife of King Henry II. Catherine is credited with introducing them to Europe and beyond. The Spanish introduced them to California and the French to Louisiana.
Growing guide: Full sun to part sun
Culture: Prepare soil for edible plant cultivation. Give your artichoke plenty of room to grow; the width and height can be as much as 3 to 6 feet. It’s best to grow from transplant from November to early March.
Water regularly to establish, then deeply and less frequently. Leave 2 feet between plants. As the warm season ends and cool weather returns, the plant will decline. It won’t be pretty, but let it die down to the ground, brown leaves and all. You can trim the dead leaves, but do not pull the plant out of the ground.
By early winter you should see new growth. Don’t worry about protecting from frost — a light frost is said to improve artichokes’ nutty flavor. By March, the plant should be large, and by May you should be harvesting buds or leaving them on the vine to bloom. The cycle continues year after year. A plant should last at least five years.
Maintenance: Apply fish emulsion or liquid seaweed after your transplant has been in the ground four weeks. Mulch heavily when summer heat revs up. The mulch will help conserve water and cool the roots. The first season you may not have a heavy crop, but in subsequent years each plant should yield six to 12 heads. If aphids attack, spray a jet of water to knock them off.
Barn Goddess tips: Go for green globe artichoke, the most popular variety and the easiest to find in nurseries. We have it at Garden Territory now. Violetto is an Italian variety with deep purple buds. It’s hardier than green globe, but is said not to be as flavorful.
If you want to enjoy all things artichoke, attend the 48th annual Artichoke Festival May 19-20 in Castroville, Calif. You’ll not only have the chance to eat artichokes prepared in a variety of ways, but you can also hop on a bus and visit a grower.