The Regal Thistle: Heirloom Artichokes
At twilight, the silver ethereal glow from an artichoke plant draws the eye to its fountain of regal, deeply-cut leaves. The plant, which can get to 4 feet in height and span 5 feet or more, is a dominant focus of the garden. The harvested buds yield meaty bottomed petals perfect for dipping. The hearts, with a natural, savory sweetness, lend themselves to pickling, pasta dishes, salads, and sauces for seafood and chicken. When left to bloom, the buds become dramatic, show-stopping purple blossoms atop the grand spread of its gray-green frosted leaves and stalwart stem.
Artichokes, cardoons and thistles are all related. The cardoon and artichoke have been cultivated for culinary uses since Roman times. They can be grown successfully in a wide variety of climates, taking care to select the proper type of plant and attend to its cultural needs.
Artichokes are excellent sources of fiber, vitamin C and antioxidants. Folate, vitamin K, potassium, and magnesium are present in generous amounts. They’re also very low in saturated fat and cholesterol, a good source of niacin, B6, iron, phosphorus, and copper.
Their qualities have proven remedial effects on the liver and are used to stimulate and aid digestion. Cynar is an Italian artichoke-based aperitif drunk before meals to spark the appetite. Artichoke rusks are given to teething babies. A number of digestive tonics in over-the-counter medicines contain artichokes as an ingredient.
Relatives of the artichoke (Cynara scolymus) grow wild in the Mediterranean areas of southern France, Italy, Greece and Spain. The Romans developed early culinary uses for this descendant of the thistle. Although their ancestors were weeds, artichokes now require richer soils, so it’s important to amend the planting area with 2-3 inches of compost and a gallon of composted manure. Work the amendments into the top 10 inches of soil before planting and include a generous portion of dolomite lime for calcium.
Calcium is important for developing sweetness in plants. Strawberries and fruit trees benefit from this mineral as well. Artichokes can handle alkaline soil conditions more than most vegetables. The best pH is 6.5 – 7.0. Give the plants lots of room, 3 feet on average, if you want a good yield. Keep them constantly moist and mulched.
Seeds have a long germination period of 10-20 days. Vernalization can get you flower heads the first year; otherwise, it takes two years to develop generously budded plants. Vernalization is a technique where the artichoke seed is held below freezing for 10 to 15 days, then planted. Established transplants can also be set out for a few weeks when the frost date is just past, in 45-50 degrees Fahrenheit weather, and permanently planted when the weather gets warmer. It fools this biannual plant into thinking it just experienced its first winter, so the flower buds need to come out. Start them in January or February.
In zones 7 and higher, the plants can be cut in August to 1 foot off the ground. Fall can produce more stems with buds. In October, cut down to the ground and mulch the root with straw or leaf mulch to insure the root from potential freezes. Some cultivars will overwinter and bear up to six years from the offshoots of the root.
Remembering to keep them watered, mulched and composted will yield many large buds with smaller side buds, similar to the way broccoli has one central large head and smaller offshoots, which are even more tender than the central head. A delight of the smaller artichoke bud is the softer choke, which can be eaten with as much pleasure as the heart.
Grow this giant fountain of the garden for its dramatic contribution of beauty and nutrition. Join the generations of gardeners through the centuries enjoying this lush plant with its buds of bliss.
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