Native to most southern Mediterranean countries, where the days are warm and the nights cooled by ocean breezes, artichokes (Cyhara scolymus) have been cultivated for thousands of years. Used by the ancient Greeks and Romans for food and as a medical remedy, this perennial thistle plant is a member of the milk thistle and sunflower family. The artichokes we find in our grocery stores are the Italian Green Globe variety, but there are more than 50 different varieties, many coming in different colors, including purple, red and burgundy.
The pointed, sometimes thorny tips of the artichoke leaves are inedible, but the base of the leaves is tender and delicious. Whole artichokes are most commonly eaten by boiling or steaming the globes in water and then eating the leaves one by one with your favorite dip until you reach the prized "heart." Baby artichokes are a tender delicacy and almost the entire immature thistle is edible.
California is the largest producer of artichokes, along with Italy and Spain. Castroville, Calif., is called the "Artichoke Capital of the World" and grows most of the artichokes we find in our stores. Located near the coast in Monterey County, the area is cloaked in cooling fog after warm sunny days, which helps to produce a bountiful crop. Each May, the town's annual Artichoke Festival features a bounty of ways to prepare and eat the tasty thistle.
Castroville's other claim to fame is the fact that Norma Jean Baker was crowned the first Artichoke Queen in 1948, years before she became known as Marilyn Monroe.
Relatively easy to grow in our coastal environment, artichokes are attractive plants to consider for your garden landscape and will provide you not only with beauty but also nutrition. A natural diuretic, artichokes are filled with vitamin C, folate, magnesium and fiber. Another benefit is the antioxidant silymarin that protects and detoxifies your liver. They are also said to lower bad cholesterol levels and blood pressure. The plants require depth to spread their roots and adequate space to grow, since they can reach anywhere between 3 to 5 feet high and 5 to 6 feet across. Choose a place to plant them in your garden with full sun and good drainage. In late winter and early spring, most nurseries carry small artichoke plants in new varieties that will bloom in their first year. You can also start your plants from seed, but check the variety to see how soon they will produce flowers after planting. Imperial Star seeds are said to bloom in their first year.
Artichoke plants that have been purchased already growing usually take 90 to 125 days to mature. Prepping your growing area with rich organic compost will give your plants a good start. Organic fish or kelp-based fertilizers will keep your plants healthy while they grow and will provide them with the nutrients they need to develop their flowers. The artichoke plant itself requires very little water to survive, but if you want the plant to produce its edible globes, you will need to water frequently while the plants grow.
After the artichokes have been harvested, let the plant die back and discontinue watering. Once all the leaves have turned brown, cut back the plants about 1 to 2 inches from the ground, place new compost down, fertilize and water regularly and they should emerge again to produce an abundant crop.
Even if you don't have them growing in your garden, artichokes are easy to find in your grocery stores in the spring and summer. Look for globes that are heavy in weight with compact, tightly closed leaves. I recently returned to Buzz's Steak House in Kailua, Hawaii, where I had my first artichoke in 1971 and learned how to prepare them. A popular item on the menu, they are always as good as I remembered them. Buzz's Recipe: Place 4 cleaned and prepped artichokes in a large pot with water to cover plus a couple of inches, add 4 tablespoons sea salt, 2 crushed garlic cloves, juice and rind of 1 lemon, 2 bay leaves and a teaspoon of black peppercorns. Bring everything to a boil, cover and cook for about 40 minutes. The restaurant serves its artichokes with butter and mayonnaise, the most traditional dips. A lemon vinaigrette or garlicky aioli are also nice accompaniments.
The Muppets character Miss Piggy is quoted as saying, "After all the trouble you go to, you get about as much actual "˜food' out of eating an artichoke as you would from licking 30 or 40 stamps. Have the shrimp cocktail instead." I disagree, but I love to serve artichokes with grilled shrimp "” a perfect summer dinner!
"” Linda is co-founder of the Secret Garden Tour of Old La Jolla and a local Realtor with Coldwell Banker who specializes in historic and architecturally designed homes. Take a tour of Linda's garden at www.LindaMarrone.com.