The Artichoke, botanically known as Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus and closely related to the Cardoon, is a cultivated variety grown for its budding globe thistle. Ancient Greeks and Romans appreciated Artichokes as an aphrodisiacal delicacy. They were introduced into French cuisine in the 1500s, and into America in the early 1800s. Global commercial cultivation is concentrated in North Africa, the Mediterranean and South America. In America, Castroville, CA takes the name of The Artichoke Center of the World, where it stages the annual May Artichoke Festival. (In 1947, Marilyn Monroe was presented there as the honorary Artichoke Queen.)
Said to have the highest level of antioxidants among all vegetables, Artichokes are high in Vitamins A, B6, C, E and K, magnesium, manganese, potassium and dietary fiber. They aid digestion and help reduce bad cholesterol, while helping raise good cholesterol levels. The principal botanical in the herbal Italian digestive Cynar, distributed by Gruppo Campari, is cynarine, courtesy of the Artichoke. If you've ever wondered why you experience a silky sweet taste while eating Artichoke leaves, heart or stem, it's because cynarine causes liquids or food to be perceived as sweet by inhibiting taste receptors.
The Chosen Chokes
Fortunately, today, there are two really productive and early-maturing varieties available so we can grow Artichokes in our own kitchen gardens annually. Imperial Star is considered to be the most easily grown for the home gardener. Maturing in 90 to 100 days, it insures a quick harvest of 4 inches round, uniquely nutty, deep glossy-green Artichokes on robust 3 foot plants. Unlike traditional types grown as perennials in hot, dry Mediterranean-type climates, Imperial Star is a practical choice for colder climates: it easily sets delicious chokes within three months of garden transplant.
Our classic Italian heirloom from the northern province of Emilia-Romagna, Violetto di Romagna, yields scads beautiful, tender and tasty deep violet and green Artichokes that are about 3 inches wide with a pleasing oval shape. With little, if any, inedible choke when picked young and tight in 85 to 100 days, Violetto's spineless, stately plants grow up to 5 feet tall with silvery foliage. It's perfect for an edible back of the garden hedge. Its purple color fades when cooked.
Easy Artichoke Growing Tips
Artichoke seed should be started indoors eight weeks before your spring Frost-Free Date so they can reliably set chokes in the fall. To find the Frost-Free Date for your garden, go HERE and use the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) chart. Select your State from the pull down menu and the select the local NOAA data collection site closest to your garden from the PDF file.
Use fresh, sterile, finely textured, soil-less seed-starting mix to promote good root development and avoid damping off. (Damping off is when young Artichoke seedlings perish from fungal disease by contaminated old seed-starting mix, cool, moist conditions and/or poor air circulation.) Only slightly moisten the seed-starting mix before sowing seed. Sow 3 to 4 seeds per pot, or 1 seed per peat pot. Speed germination with the warmth of a seed starting mat, up to 85 degrees F. Artichokes develop a tiny taproot and are extremely susceptible to root disturbance and damping off, so barely water young seedlings.
The baby seedlings prefer 60 to 65 degrees F temperatures and good air circulation. Provide about 16 hours of daily bright light with grow lights: a sunny windowsill is insufficient. Hang the grow lights on chains so you can move them up as your seedlings grow. The grow lights should be just an inch or two above the seedlings for maximum rooting, growth and warmth. Once the seedlings are 2 to 3 inches tall, transfer them to deep, individual 4 inch pots. Strong, mature Artichoke plants require nutrition. Once germinated, fertilize one week with fish or seaweed emulsion, and the next week with a half strength solution of liquid all-purpose fertilizer.
Graduating from life indoors as toddlers, to life outside as adolescents can be traumatic. A week to ten days before you transplant your seedlings, start bringing them outside for daily outings to get them used to light and temperatures (protected from wind and intense afternoon sunlight): this is the process of hardening off.
You have to trick Artichoke seedlings into thinking that they've been through a winter (that they've vernalized) so they set chokes. You can do this by timing their transplant so they experience at least three weeks of cool 50 degree F weather. Cover them with floating row covers only when threatened by a killing frost. Timing is everything.
Artichokes need full, all-day sun; good drainage and neutral to slightly acidic pH, fertile soil to which you've added compost, well-rotted manure and/or slow-release organic fertilizer. Add fertilizer under each plant when transplanting to the garden. Space the seedlings 24 to 36 inches apart in rows that are 36 to 48 inches apart. Water moderately after planting, and apply a 2" layer of straw mulch to help conserve moisture. Artichokes are heavy feeders, so fertilize regularly through the season.
Keep your eye on your Artichoke plants: the chokes hid within the foliage. Artichokes are ready to harvest when the buds and petals are closed tightly and almost squeak when squeezed. Never wait for the buds to open, they'll be way too tough to eat. Harvest while the petals are still closed, using a sharp blade. Artichokes can keep well for up to about two weeks.
If a few buds escape your knife, they'll open into spectacular, 6-inch, fluorescent purple-blue, thistle-like flowers. The part of the Artichoke that we eat is actually the flower bud before it blooms.
Artichokes can perennialize in horticultural zone 8 or higher, needing to be replaced every four to five years. After the harvest is over at the end of the season, allow the plant to dry out after the leaves begin to turn brown and yellow. Once the foliage has died down and dried, remove the plant's leaves, and mulch with a layer of organic compost to enrich the soil for next years crop.
Fun, Delicious, Artsy Artichokes
From the time that I first saw an Artichoke in an Our Gang comedy episode, I knew it had to be the most special treat ever: it was totally OK to eat it with your hands, plus it had to be carefully unwrapped to discover its delicious hidden treasure.
Artichokes are fun and delicious. Whole steamed Artichokes and dipping sauces turn any ho-hum night into a festive food gala. Slice off the top of the tightly wrapped Artichoke to remove prickly leave tips and the top inedible fibrous third or so of the leaves. Cut the stem to about 2 inches long and remove any gnarly, tiny exterior base leaves. Gently spread apart the leaves to help speed consistent steam cooking. Soak them until cooking time, or give them a quick dunk, in cold lemon water to keep the tender flesh from browning. Steam for about 30 to 45 minutes until the leaves are tender and you can scrape their sweet flesh between your teeth. Before serving, you can gently separate the leaves to reveal the interior choke, and remove it, or you can leave it whole for your guests to sculpt out, revealing the real prize: the sweet, silky heart. The top of the stem tastes just as good as the heart! There's a whole bunch of wonderful dipping sauces: Hollandaise Sauce, mayonnaise seasoned with minced Parsley, Chives, Scallions and a smidge of Tarragon, salt and pepper; mayonnaise mixed with a little Basil Pesto or Spinach Pesto; or, quite frankly, your favorite salad dressing.
Nothing beats the old baked Artichoke Spinach dip, except maybe the old warm crab and Artichoke dip. Steamed and baked Artichokes stuffed with rich concoctions of pine nuts, Garlic, grated cheese, fresh bread crumbs, Parsley, olive oil, and maybe Italian sausage or lamb, have been popular in the Mediterranean region for millennium. We love diced Artichoke hearts and stems in salads, on pizza, in creamy pasta dishes, risotto and in quiches or frittatas for brunch. Nothing tops shrimp scampi or lemon chicken in our house, except when we add sliced Artichoke hearts to their garlic-lemony butter-broths. While our favorite way to enjoy freshly harvested Artichokes is to savor them steamed with Hollandaise, Manfred's Cream of Artichoke Soup is one of the most sinfully sweet and silky, delicious soups ever. There's nothing like it.
Celebrate National Artichoke Heart Day on March 16!