All About Artichokes!
Plant Name: Cynara scolymus
Artichokes are part of the thistle family. If left in the garden to continue their growth, what we call the “choke” will eventually bloom into a giant purple flower head and the resemblance will be unmistakable to it’s more diminutive cousin.
Artichokes are grown en masse in warm climates and if you are traveling along route 1 in California just north of Monterey, you will see vast fields of the plant. Located just to the east is Castroville, California., where three-quarters of all the artichokes grown in the state are harvested. The town has proclaimed itself the “Artichoke Center of the World.”
The tall plants appear alien and spiny, an interesting form. The flower buds are enormous, and if you happen to be in the Castroville area, pull off the main road to find one of the local stands. You might be able to pick up artichokes at a cost of ten for $1, yes, ten artichokes for $1. Slightly different pricing is applied at your local grocer where each bud can go for $2-$4. They are available in late spring as a first harvest, but have continued availability from secondary harvest in late summer.
Artichokes can be grown in zones 4-11 making them an interesting addition to any garden. In warmer climates, they are grown as perennial or biennial plants often planted in the fall for the following years’ harvest. In cooler climates (lower zones 4-6) they can be planted successfully as annuals. Planted as annuals they add interest to herb gardens and can even be planted among more formal gardens and rose bushes adding spiny structure and height to the back of the bed. Their bright purple late blooms are somewhat reminiscent of the sturdy pop of color provided by early spring alliums.
This is a picture of a very thistle-like artichoke bloom taken at Ballymaloe Cooky School Gardens in Cork, Ireland
In colder climates, start seedlings indoors four to six weeks before planting. Transfer directly to soil when temperatures reach over 60 degrees, planting at least 24 inches apart. However, check the specific variety you’ve chosen, as the larger varieties can grow 5-6 feet wide and in height. Soil should be rich in organic material, loamy vs. clay and slightly acidic.
Water well and often for more tender buds and stronger plants.
Once harvested, cut the plants back to one or two feet to try for a second harvest.
“Baby artichokes” are those of immature growth to use more of the flower bud without having to cut away so many of the outer leaves. The immature buds also have less “choke” material, but some fibrous material may still exist. The large, mature artichokes are excellent for a traditional steamed artichoke, where the center ends of the leaves are consumed by ently pulling them between your teeth for the tender portion of the heart. With larger artichokes, the harvester is rewarded with a larger artichoke heart, it’s just more work to get to it.
- Green Globe – the variety most common commercially grown variety, and most popular in California
- Imperial Star – more easily grown and widely adaptable. A good option to grow from seed and to grow as an annual. The best option for colder areas.
- Purple of Romagna – tender Italian heirloom favored by chefs, a good option for deep frying and cooking whole when immature
Artichokes are a good source of fiber, potassium, vitamin C, magnesium, B-6 and iron. They are very high in antioxidants, in fact, they’re number 7 on the USDA’s top 20 antioxidant-rich foods list.
Cooking and Eating
Artichokes have a lovely subtle flavor that is both pleasantly acidic and complimented by lemon. The flavor of artichoke goes from tasting tart to subtly sweet as it is consumed. It goes extremely well with butter, garlic, lemon and herbs such as rosemary as well as dairy, especially cheeses.
In preparing artichokes, plan ahead for a bit of extra prep time. Unless serving steamed artichokes where each diner takes the responsibility of handling their own bulb (not unlike cracking into a lobster or crab in terms of steps and effort!) you will likely need to do some trimming.
Instructions below are for globe artichokes as they are most readily available in the U.S.
- A very sharp knife, serrated is best.
- Vegetable peeler
- A sturdy metal spoon (the same one you use for extra hard ice cream)
- Large bowl or stewpot of water with juice and slices of one lemon per three quarts water
- Remove the bottom most leaves (these will be shorter than all others) by just snapping them off.
- Peel or cut the stem to remove just the hard skin (similar to broccoli stems) and expose the lighter colored interior, continue this up the base of the artichoke where the small leaves were. This rounded section is where the heart is.
- Place artichoke on a cutting board and with your knife cut down (about 1-2 inches) to the upper portion of the bottom leaves to give the artichoke a flat top and expose the inner leaves.
- With a spoon, point deep into the center, and in a circular motion use the spoon to separate and lift out the fibrous choke. You will see the material has small thread like fibers, not good for eating. It’s named the “choke” very intentionally.
- As you prep, place each of the artichokes into the water and lemon bath to keep them from oxidizing and turning brown.
The artichokes are ready for your recipes!
Not into prep? We understand. For some recipes such as dips, or pizzas where the artichokes are mingled with other ingredients and cooked for some time, you may prefer to use canned or frozen artichokes. However, with these faster methods, know that the product can contain more of the fibrous leaf portions than you would choose to include in your prep as they are sold by weight.
How to Grow Artichokes Oregon State University Extension Service
Artichoke in the Garden Utah State University Cooperative Extension Service
WebMD Artichoke nutrient profile