Artichokes grow on perennial bushes that live for 15 years or longer.
Artichokes grow on perennial bushes that live for 15 years or longer.
Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus
USDA Hardiness Zone: 6 - 11
The artichoke is a perennial plant cultivated for its edible, immature flower buds. The buds are arranged in clusters (inflorescence) with spine-tipped bracts (specialized leaves that enclose the flowers’ reproductive structures). The tender, edible base of the bud is called the artichoke heart. The buds produce strikingly beautiful purple flowers as the plant continues to grow.
The artichoke plant grows large and bushy, up to 6 feet tall and 5 feet wide. It thrives in full sun to partial shade, and prefers loamy, well-draining soil.
Artichokes are cultivated in their native Mediterranean countries, but in the United States, they only grow commercially in California. They prefer coastal areas with mild, frost-free winters and humid summers. Under ideal growing conditions (zones 9-11), the plant is a perennial that produces buds for a number of years, but in colder climates it is treated as an annual, with new plants started each spring.
Artichoke plants produce buds for as long as 15 years if they are well-tended. The rootstock must be divided every three years to prevent offshoots from overcrowding and diminishing productivity.
Artichokes are propagated from seed or by dividing the roots of an existing plant.
To propagate by root division, 8 inch shoots growing outside the plant’s base are carefully separated from the main root ball underground. The roots of the shoot need to remain intact in order to be transplanted. The best time to divide the plant is during the plant’s dormancy in fall or winter.
After harvesting, stalks are cut to the ground and covered with heavy compost before the first frost. In areas with cold winters, the plants are covered with a generous amount of mulch to fully protect crowns.
Artichoke harvest in most areas takes place from late July or early August until the first frost. In areas where artichokes grow perennially, the first harvest generally takes place in spring or early summer, and a small harvest may follow in the fall.
An artichoke stalk has a large central bud at the top, which is the first artichoke to ripen. It’s difficult to tell when to harvest artichokes - ideally the buds should be as large as possible, but picked prior to the first signs of blooming. Once the bud begins to open, the plant is no longer edible.
In cooler weather, buds are allowed to grow up to 4 inches in diameter before they are harvested. In warmer weather, however, buds are harvested earlier because high temperatures accelerate bloom time.
Buds are cut with about one inch of stem attached.
Artichokes store up to one week in the refrigerator. The best method is to sprinkle water on the artichokes and put them in the vegetable crisper in a plastic bag. Artichokes need to stay hydrated but too much water causes mold.
Artichokes store in the freezer for 6 to 8 months. To prepare them for freezing, they must be blanched for 3 to 7 minutes (depending on size) in a mixture of ½ cup lemon juice to two quarts water to keep globes from darkening. They are then dried and individually frozen before they can be transferred into airtight bags or containers.
The artichoke originated in the Mediterranean region, either in Sicily or in North Africa. Botanically, it is related to the cardoon, another thistle-like plant with edible leaves and stalks. Historically, it is unclear which plant came first.
The artichoke was believed to be an aphrodisiac by ancient Greeks and Romans. In ancient Rome, it was a delicacy reserved for the upper classes prepared in honey and vinegar, so it could be preserved and eaten throughout the year.
By 800 CE, artichokes were being cultivated in Spain by the Moors and in Sicily by an Arab tribe called the Saracens. It is around this time that the artichoke is believed to have been developed into the plant we know today by monks in their monastery gardens . The modern English word for artichoke derives from its Arabic name: al-qarshuf.
Artichokes arrived in Naples during the 15th century and then spread throughout Europe. Italian Catherine de Medici brought the artichoke to France when she married King Henry II in the mid-16th century.
The artichoke arrived in the United States via French immigrants to the Louisiana Territory during the early 1800’s. Spaniards brought artichokes to the Monterey region of California in the late 1800’s.
Today, California produces nearly 100% of the United States artichoke crop, with over 80% of that production based in Monterey.
In the 1920’s, Mafia head, Ciro Terranova (“Whitey”), was known as the “Artichoke King” for creating a monopoly on the artichoke market in New York. He purchased all the artichokes sent from California to New York and established a distributorship that sold them at a 30 to 40% profit. He also launched vicious attacks on artichoke growers that didn’t comply with his scheme by disseminating their fields with machetes at night. The resulting “artichoke wars” resulted in New York mayor, Fiorella La Guardia, declaring a short-lived (week-long) ban on the “sale, display, and possession” of artichokes in New York.
The top five international producers of artichokes are: Italy, Egypt, Spain, Peru and Argentina (FAOSTAT, 2010).
Artichoke cultivars range in size, shape, color and flavor. Some unique and popular varieties are: Green Globe (the classic round, green variety), Baby Anzio (small and red), Big Heart (green and huge), Mercury (violet-red and sweet in flavor), and Siena (wine red in color, small and tender enough to be eaten raw).
Artichokes are often boiled, steamed or grilled and flavored with butter, garlic, lemon and assorted spices. They are frequently eaten as a dip with melted butter or mayonnaise. The bottom of the artichoke - the heart - is the most tender and desirable part. Artichokes are eaten whole or used as an ingredient in sauces and salads.
In herbal medicine, artichoke leaf extract is used to treat digestive disorders such as IBS, to lower cholesterol, and to relieve the symptoms of heartburn and hangovers, arthritis and bladder infections.
Artichoke hearts are good for your heart!
Studies have shown that artichoke and its leaf extracts reduce cholesterol levels, lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease and atherosclerosis. One study in patients with high cholesterol showed an 18.5% drop in overall cholesterol and a 23% drop in LDL (bad cholesterol) in subjects who consumed artichoke leaf extract over a six week period.
Cyanarin and sesquiterpene-lactones in artichokes are compounds that stimulate the production of bile, helping the body to digest fats and absorb vitamins. The stimulation of bile production in the liver also helps remove dangerous toxins from the body.
Flavonoid and silymarin protect the liver by minimizing the process of lipid peroxidation that causes damage to the cell membranes of liver tissue.
Antioxidant polyphenols found in artichokes, including gallic acid, rutin, and quercetin help to induce apoptosis (cell death) and reduce the proliferation of cancer cells, perhaps making artichokes effective in the prevention and management of certain cancers such as breast cancer, prostate cancer and leukemia.
Fresh artichoke is an excellent source of folic acid. Folates play an important role in prenatal diets, helping to prevent neural tube defects in newborn babies.
Artichokes contain moderate levels of the antioxidant, vitamin C (approximately 20% of the daily RDA). This vitamin plays an important role in boosting immunity against infection and scavenging harmful, inflammatory free radicals from the body.
Artichokes contain good levels of minerals including potassium, copper, calcium, iron, manganese and phosphorus. Copper and iron play roles in red blood cell formation. Potassium helps control blood pressure and heart rate by counteracting the effects of sodium.
How to grow artichokes:
Successful artichoke cultivation varies by climate. In zones 8 and over, treat artichokes as annuals, so begin indoors and transplant outside each spring. In milder climates, crops are well-mulched over winter and survive as perennials.
Artichokes are grown from seed, shoot, or from the dormant roots of existing plants. In climates where artichokes are perennial, rootstock is thinned and divided every three years to maintain productivity of the parent plant. The divided rootstock is replanted to start new plants.
Artichokes can be grown from seed in greenhouse settings or under fluorescent lights during the winter, which gives them a good start for outdoor planting during the spring in any climate.
Seedlings require a great deal of nutrients during their first stages of life.
Prepare soil with a nutrient-rich fertilizer containing fish emulsion, organic compost, aged manure, or other organic material.
Transplant seedlings after the danger of hard frost has passed in spring, when they are between 8 and 10 inches tall and the average soil temperature is approximately 60 degrees. Plant at least 4 feet apart to give them plenty of room to spread.
An artichoke plant begins to produce flower buds sometime between mid-summer and mid-fall. Perennial crops may produce all year, but the biggest crop is usually in spring, followed by a second, smaller fall harvest.
In climates where the artichoke grows perennially:
After the first yearly harvest, prune the stalk back to approximately 1 inch to encourage productivity for a second harvest. Divide the root stock every three years to prevent offshoots from overcrowding and diminishing productivity.