By Janet Barocco, Sonoma County Master Gardener
Have you ever wondered who first discovered how to eat an artichoke? That fearless ancient gastronome most likely lived in the Mediterranean regions of current day North Africa or southern Europe, where wild artichokes are still found today.
The artichoke was popular fare in ancient Greece, Rome and Sicily and was served at Catherine de Medici’s table in 16th century Florence. She later imported artichokes to France with her upon her marriage to King Henri II. French settlers brought artichokes to North America at the time of the Louisiana Purchase and Sicilians imported their taste for chokes to New Orleans as a result of mass migrations to the Crescent City in the 19th century. The Spanish introduced artichokes to California and since the 1920’s Monterey County has produced the entire US crop. Castroville, the “artichoke capital of the world” proudly boasts of its first Artichoke Queen, Norma Jean, who was crowned in 1947. Soon after she rose to world fame as Marilyn Monroe.
Description, Cultural Requirements
The artichoke, (Cynara scolymus), is a cool weather perennial, sometimes grown from seed as an annual. (See UC Davis, Vegetable Research for more information on seeding.)
Artichokes average 3– 5 feet high and wide, and bear for 4 – 5 years. They require good drainage, moist soil, sun to partial shade, and grow best in USDA zones 7 – 9. Artichokes go dormant in hot weather, but their main dormancy is in winter when they die back to the ground. Artichokes require protection from severe, prolonged frost. In most parts of Sonoma County, mulching heavily in winter will suffice. Artichokes are not overly bothered by pests; look for aphids, snails, slugs, and earwigs on foliage and under bud scales. A strong shot of water or insecticidal soap controls aphids. Hand pick snails and slugs.
Planting and the Annual Growth Cycle
In Sonoma county, starts may be planted from early fall through early spring. Since artichokes need good drainage, make sure your soil is deeply dug or mounded, and has been amended with compost. I plant in autumn, to let roots establish over winter.
We’ll have our first baby artichokes sometime this month. Harvest lasts until summer heat arrives, after which bud scales toughen, and flower. I’ll cut most plants back, reduce irrigation and apply mulch to induce summer dormancy. But I let several buds remain to flaunt their vibrant blue-violet coronas, attracting bees and butterflies. As summer wanes, I’ll work the compost in around the plants. They’ll perk up with cooler days and may produce a second crop of edible buds. The entire plant will die back and winter under a protective layer of mulch. Sometime in January, silvery foliage will begin to peek through the mulch, as the plant slowly awakens toward a renewed cycle of growth in spring. The ‘chokes are easy to harvest when ripe – just cut them off with a sharp knife, leaving a bit of edible stem if desired.
Ornamental or Vegetable?
With their large, silver-gray leaves, oval – shaped, scaled flower buds (edible part), and stunning violet-blue flowers, artichokes are a dramatic, sculptural element in the garden or landscape. They can certainly be planted in your vegetable garden, but consider your ornamental beds, as well. Plant at the back of perennial beds or borders, along a fence, or in half barrels or other large containers. Artichokes in my front garden occupy the back of a crescent-shaped mound, with rainbow chard, purple cabbage and bunch onions at the front of the bed. Annual flowers like cosmos, small sunflowers and amaranth make an attractive cover for the dormant, mulched plants in the heat of summer.
With the grocery stores beginning to have abundant supplies of local artichokes, now is a good time to scout out a place in either your vegetable or ornamental beds for a few plants. Then add artichokes to your list of fall plantings!
Artichoke Varieties for Sonoma County
Green Globe/Green Globe Improved:
Hardiest of the 3 varieties. Recommended by UC Davis. Plant Nov – early spring. Produces flower buds within 3 – 4 months of planting out. Goes dormant in hot, dry summer.
Imperial Star-: Spineless buds. Recommended by UC Davis as a perennial planted in fall or spring in our climatic zone. Produces within 3 – 4 months after transplanting.
Violetto di Romagna Artichoke: Heirloom from Emilia-Romagna province in northern Italy. Stunning dark violet buds turn green when cooked. Spines soften with cooking. I find these the most flavorful of the 3 varieties. Harvest young and sauté or bake whole, in garlic and olive oil.