The artichoke (Cynara scolymus) is a perennial, native to the Mediterranean region and much beloved there. Varieties grown for market in California are pumped-up versions of the many selections that Italians, French, and people of all the other countries that face the Mediterranean eat. Artichoke is a relative of thistles, and the edible parts are actually flower buds composed of many layers of overlapping bracts enclosing a central disc of small flowers hidden between many stiff, needle-like structures. Each outer bract has a thin layer of succulent flesh toward the base that is deliciously accessed by scraping and slurping individually. Once the inner bracts, with little to no flesh, are encountered, it is best to scoop out the rest of the floral structure; those inner spikes are the “choke” of artichoke. What is left is the “heart” of the artichoke. This meaty prize, in botanical terms, is known as the hypanthium. The succulent young (very immature) buds are also often eaten whole and have little of that “choke” to bother.
Artichokes available in nurseries here are of the globe type — just like those on sale in the market. Standard varieties will appear bare-root in the early winter for immediate planting or as young plants right now. They require full sun but can tolerate a bit (only a bit) of shade and require regular water to get them established and then to assure a good crop. Artichokes can, however, be quite drought-tolerant, and used as an ornamental, they are very handsome with their fountain of deeply divided, coarse, gray leaves. If you leave the flower buds to mature instead of eating them, they open to reveal a large, striking thistle head of purplish-blue that is attractive to a number of beneficial insects as well as butterflies.
The major pest of artichokes is the aphid. Within days, they can colonize a plant and literally suck the life out of it. Young plants are highly susceptible, so they should be checked frequently as they become established. Ants may take advantage of the situation and defend the aphids from predators, as well as “herd” them around on the plant while “milking” them for their sweet secretions. Controlling the ants may be crucial to getting the upper hand on an infestation.
A close relative of artichoke is cardoon (Cynara cardunculus). Sometimes grown just as a fantastically dramatic foliage plant, it also can contribute to the dinner table. In this species, it is the leaf stalks that are harvested and treated much as one would asparagus spears. Leaves are most tender if they are bunched up and tied together for four or five weeks before harvesting. This blanches them by excluding sunlight (akin to the treatment of white asparagus). If left to grow, cardoon will also bloom with purplish thistles, adding to its garden appeal. To encourage blossom production (and thus artichokes), fertilize with an organic product that is high in phosphorus (the middle letter—“P”—in the formula on the label). Phosphorus fosters flower and fruit development in plants.
Both artichokes and cardoons are large plants and require careful placement. Their somewhat spiny, divided leaves can grow to four feet or more in height, and the plants themselves can be at least that wide and most likely wider. Enjoy both of these unique members of the vegetable kingdom for their edible parts and highly ornamental qualities.
• Mulch everything. Keep a 3- to 6-inch layer in place to conserve moisture and reduce weeds.
• To have pumpkins ready for Halloween, plant now. Next month, pick one fruit to concentrate the plant’s energies, pinching out any others.
• Control mosquitoes with fish in water gardens, or Bt “dunks” in smaller containers.
• Watch for giant whitefly outbreaks. Hose off and apply worm castings on the soil.
Virginia Hayes, curator of Ganna Walska Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address them to Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send email to email@example.com.