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Artichokes
(Cynara scolymus)

["Jerusalem Artichokes" are discussed as Sun Chokes]


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Cultivars

Artichoke globes

Around this household artichokes are ranked OK, but aren't a really big favorite--but we would like to try them to see how they are when they're picked young, small, and tender instead of big and pithy as they always appear in supermarkets. Unfortunately, this is not an easy climate for artichokes, which prefer mild, damp weather (some sources say it won't grow below Zone 7). Here is a summary of a test effort trialling artichokes for possible commercial growing in North Dakota:

The plants grew well at first . . . . As the summer got warmer, the plants changed from vegetative growth to reproductive growth. The plants were only 1 to 1.5 ft tall when this change occurred--much too small to produce good chokes. After starting to produce chokes, the plants didn't get any bigger and eventually died without producing any good chokes.

Most artichokes need to be vernalized to produce chokes. The vernalization process is accomplished by up to 1300 hours [c. 55 days] of temperatures below 50°F, depending on variety . . . . If artichoke production is to be successful . . .  a way must be found to keep the artichokes from producing chokes until the plants are 4 to 6 ft tall. Choke production may be delayed by: 1) a different variety that needs more vernalization or that is tolerant to warm summer temperatures; or 2) direct seeding in May or transplanting in June so the plant is not vernalized until late August or September.

Note also that many people have reported that artichoke plants seem to be a magnet for pests, notably slugs and ants. Nor are they low-maintenance; as one put it, "Artichokes require considerable care. They must be sprayed quarterly to prevent insect or disease loss. Fertilization is a must. Drip irrigation is also a must." And, to ice the cake, they require huge amounts of space and are not always highly productive.

A useful article from the Virginia Cooperative Extension infomrs its readers that:

Artichokes have narrow preferences for climatic conditions. Considered a cool-season crop, they grow best at a 75°F daytime temperature mean with 55°F nighttime temperatures. They have an effective adaptive range of 45° to 85°F. . . . In order to form buds, new artichoke plants require “vernalization” or “chilling.” This occurs just after planting, with seedling exposure to cool temperatures (eight to ten days or 190 to 240 hours of 50ºF or less) required for plants to initiate buds. Thus, early spring planting is needed to meet this requirement. As a guideline, planting at, or a week or two ahead of the average last frost date for a particular region should provide time for adequate vernalization. [But] Hot summer temperatures may reverse accumulated chilling hours, resulting in fewer plants producing buds. Newer cultivars seem more resistant to this "devernalization". . . . [B]est production was noted in beds covered with black plastic mulch with drip irrigation (plasticulture). Overall survival was better with plasticulture versus bare ground . . . with a trend for higher total bud number and average bud weight. In warmer areas . . . white plastic mulch may be a better choice, and growers are urged to experiment with this to help reduce mid-summer heat build-up and plant stress.

For those in cooler climates climates like ours who nonetheless want to give it a spin, there are now some new varieties of globe artichoke that look especially promising. Sad to say, the most promising of the lot, the Northern Star (presumably a derivation from Imperial Star), developed by Doug Peters of Peters Seed & Research, seems to have disappeared: PSR's new web site shows no reference ot it at all (nor does it seem to have any "contact" mechanism for asking questions).

Kiss of Burgundy artichoke globe

Another possibility is the relatively new Kiss of Burgundy "semi-thornless" variety, bred to deal with climate extremes (though more oriented to hot summers than cold winters, it purportedly can take both). But, though the type is now mentioned fairly frequently in buying/cooking discussions, finding seed--for home-garden or even commercial use--seems impossible, at least on the internet. If you're interested, do some searches and try following up leads. (Note that there are other "purple" artichokes around, but only the Kiss has been especially bred to tolerate climate extremes.)

In short, it looks like trying to grow artichokes as the normal perennials in our climate is essentially impossible for home growers. Sorry.

It seems the only choice for folk like us is to grow chokes as annuals, for which purpose the cultivar Imperial Star would be the leading candidate--bred for single-season cropping and reported to do well in the north. A Southern Illinois University cultivar trial found that Imperial Star significantly outproduced Northern Star, despite the name. In our climate, Imperial Star as an annual seems about the only hope for the desperate artichokista.

(If you want to read about people who really fancy artichokes, this article on Italian artichokes is fascinating.)


Planting

(These discussions are derived from information about perennial artichoke plantings, but one supposes that little varies for annual plantings.)

Timing

It's best, with our short (for artichokes, anyway) season, to start them as seedlings indoors. Most sources recommend at least 8 weeks indoors in pots, with some going as far as 10 weeks. Artichoke seedlings, when first planted out, need "vernalization"--a spell of cool (under 50°) temperatures; how much is needed depends strongly on the particular cultivar, with Imperial Star, for example, needing perhaps 200 hours (8 to 10 days), Emerald almost none, but Green Globe perhaps 1300 hours (circa 55 days!). If we assume that whatever type we select is a low-vernalization type, we want perhaps about 8 to 10 days of such temperatures; hereabouts, that means planting out in early to mid-March or so, which comports with the "early spring" mentioned by at least one expert.

Working back, we should thus sow seed around mid-January--possibly our first garden task of the season (though leek seeds are sown about that time too).


Starting Seedlings

Sow your artichoke seeds about ¼ inch deep and ¼ inch apart in a lightly moistened soil-less growing mix. Use a good-quality starting mix, not hardware-store "potting mix": you want a soil-free medium, to be sure there are no fungal problems ("Jiffy Mix" and "Pro-Mix" are representative examples of the sort of thing wanted, and many mail-order garden-supply houses have a proprietary mix). Germinate the seed at a temperature of about 75° F.: heating pads or the like under the seedling flat or pot are an immense assist to good germination. Be sure to start more seeds than you want plants, perhaps half again as many, because you will likely have to cull them at planting-out time.

As soon after emergence as the individual seedlings can be handled, transplant them into fair-sized pots or cells--say 2 to 4 inches in size. Keep those transplants growing at temperatures as close as you can get to 65° in the day and 55° at night; the day and night temperatures can be plus or minus 5 degrees, but try to keep the day/night difference at around 10°.

When the outdoor daily highs hit the high 40s, start hardening off your seedlings. Transplant them after a week or two (which will have been their vernalization period).


The Bed

Site your artichoke bed where the plants will get at least 6 hours of sun, as they will not develop properly without it.

Artichokes need really good soil to thrive. Before planting out your seedlings, spade the ground deeply (well-drained soil is important), and supply it with good compost or manure (and fertilize again, generously, every season). If your soil is heavy (clay), work humus or even sand well into it. Slightly acid soil is wanted for artichokes--some say even as acid as pH 6.0 (though others say 6.5).


Transplanting Out

We have seen spacing recommendations from up to six feet down to 30 inches; in general, while the overall number of artichokes is increased with narrow spacing, the average size of the chokes is reduced. It also depends in part on your soil: the better it is, the bigger the plants will grow. A test planting at large spacings seems logical, because more plants can be interspersed later if that seems appropriate, whereas over-close plants are a problem. But one way or t'other, these fellows eat up garden space.

Artichokes notoriously do not always grow true to type from seed (they are commonly propagated by cuttings); home gardeners have to be prepared to cull any off types, and thereby lose a season for those spots in the garden. (But it helps to cull your seedlings before you even transplant: look for stunted or albino types and deep-six 'em.)

We need to plant artichokes out when they can get their first days at around 50° or so, but, around here anyway, that can expose them to freezes--our typical nightly lows in mid-March are skirting the freeze line--which they should not see. It thus seems wise to provide the seedlings with some early night-time frost protection for their first couple of months. Take care! Do not expose the plants, especially at first, to daytime temperatures warmer than the ambient. That means not just setting something like a Wall o'Water on the seedlings and leaving it there. One approach is to fill a number of transparent or translucent plastic soda or milk jugs with water and leave them in the sun during the day somewhere away from the artichoke seedlings, then move the jugs around the plants at night so the accumulated heat in the water softens the night-time lows for the seedlings. (Moving Walls o'Water around on a twice-daily basis would be far too tiresome.)

If one is fortunate enough to have found a cultivar that really will perennialize up here, then one obviously need not replant annually. Nonetheless, with established perennial stands, one-fourth of the plants should be replaced each year to keep steady production. That replacing is accomplished by planting suckers (or side shoots) from existing plants; take the suckers or side roots from only the best and healthiest plants. Such shoots should be about 3 inches long; harvest them in early autumn, pot them indoors in sand or good soil, then plant them out the following spring, replacing the weakest plants.


Growing

Artichokes need to grow quickly to be choice and edible. Watering is very important: one source says that with a good supply of moisture, they can yield from one to two dozen buds (artichokes) a plant).

In warm areas, over-early flowering is a risk: you can minimize it by trimming flower stalks and large leaves, and by reducing their water and their feeding, during the period when daytime temperatures exceed the low 70s.

Mulching with a heavy but porous mulch is A Good Thing, but have a care: mulch when the weather is warm, but when it's cool, remove most of the mulch. In the fall, when the artichokes are done producing, cut the stems one foot up from the ground and cover the crowns of the plants with the same mulch you have been using. (But occasionally, on clear days, remove the mulch and moisten the ground around them--they should not stand in dry ground even in the winter.) In the spring, remove the mulch as soon as practicable: leaving the plant covered too long will cause shoots to start too early.

Frequent--perhaps monthly--side-dressing with a high-nitrogen fertilizer is wise.

When flower buds first become visible, start checking the plants daily; pick buds just before the petals begin to open. Delaying harvest causes buds to mature and transform more of the desired "heart" into spiny "choke". The chokes should be soft, and bendable for two or three inches below the bud. After a bud is cut, the plant will produce new buds that are somewhat smaller. You will not find such smaller buds in supermarkets, but it seems expert consensus that small, young artichoke buds are substantially better eating than the older, large ones typical of supermarkets.


More

Relevant Links

Besides any links presented above on this page, the following ought to be especially helpful:


Odds and Ends

Biology

The "globe" artichoke is a thistle, a perennial member of the Asteraceae (formerly Compositae) family, the asters, which also includes lettuces, cardoon (a close relative), sunchokes, and sunflowers. The artichoke proper is actually a flower head or bud that has not completely matured. When fully matured and opened, the inedible bloom, a brilliant bluish-purple thistle, can be as large as four or five inches in diameter, some even as large as seven inches across. What is commonly called the "leaves" are actually bracts. The edible portion of an artichoke "leaf" is at the base of the bract where it attaches to the heart or stem.

The plant itself, an herbaceous perennial, can grow to a height of ten to twelve feet, though commercial plants range from four to six feet in height and spread to a bushy six-foot diameter. Each plant produces small, medium, and large artichokes, with the largest formed at the top of the terminal buds along the central stem; smaller artichokes develop on lower branches.


History

It appears the artichoke was first developed in Sicily. It dates back to at least the time of the Greek philosopher and naturalist Theophrastus (371-287 B.C.), who wrote of them as being grown in Italy and Sicily.

The ancient Greeks and Romans considered artichokes a delicacy, and also an aphrodistiac. In Greece, the artichoke was especially considered an effective means to secure the birth of male children. Wealthy Romans enjoyed artichokes prepared in honey and vinegar and seasoned with cumin, so that the treat would be available year round.

Somewhere about 800 A.D., North African Moors begin cultivating artichokes in the area of Granada, while another Arab group, the Saracens, became identified with chokes in Sicily. That may explain why the English word artichoke is derived from the Arab al'qarshuf rather than from the Latin cynara. Between 800 and 1500 A.D., the artichoke was gradually transformed--perhaps in monastery gardens--into the plant we know today.

After Rome fell artichokes became scarce, but the plant re-emerged during the Renaissance in 1466, when the Strozzi family brought them from Florence to Naples. From there, artichoke cultivation gradually spread to other sections of Europe. The artichoke arrived in Britain around 1548 (but was not well received). In the 1600s, Spanish settlers brought artichokes to California, but they did not become widely grown or used there until the 1920s--yet by 1929, artichokes were the third-largest cash crop in the Big Valley.

Castroville, California--the self-proclaimed "Artichoke Capitol of the World" (it produces 80% of all commercially grown artichokes), through which we have many times passed, with pleasure--and the artichoke itself really made it onto the cultural map when Marilyn Monroe was crowned Artichoke Queen in 1948.

(Some further historical notes are available at Linda Stradley's artichoke page.)


Envoi

In an on-line artichoke-eaters' survey (6,475 participants, not trivial), almost six percent said that their "favorite part of" the artichoke was neither the heart nor the leaves. Moral? Don't be so sure you know how best to cook and eat artichokes.


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