Yardsmart: The incredible, edible artichoke
You'll find them depicted in the lamps of Louis Comfort Tiffany and the wallpapers of famous art nouveau period designers beautifully depicting foliage and flowers. No other plant offers such amazing form, texture and color, while at the same time producing an edible vegetable that once was limited to the rich and famous of 18th-century France.
Unless you've seen an artichoke in full bloom with its bright purple fibers opened to the sun, you won't truly appreciate how extraordinary a plant it is.
Out west, where perennials often suffer in a dry climate, the artichoke likes it enough to naturalize and potentially become a pest plant. The folks at Fine Gardening report that while most commercial crops are harvested on the West Coast, this plant can be grown in nearly every state. Those in USDA Zone 8 or higher should consider them fully perennial. Where slightly colder in Zone 7, the roots may survive winter if well-protected by mulching. In all other zones, they should be planted from dormant roots or seed each year.
Artichokes are large perennials that return from the roots every year. They bloom in the summer, and it is these immature flower buds that are harvested to sell in markets. If left on the plant to mature, the bud opens up to a huge purple tuft of fibers that are stunning to look at. This makes them a star in beds and borders as well as the food garden. Each summer the original roots will grow larger and may in time be divided into many new plants.
The most common variety, California globe, is a big plant that can range from 4 to 6 feet across at maturity, so beware when adding it to smaller gardens. The Omaha variety can produce a huge bud up to 6 inches across. On the other end of the spectrum are Fiesole, with its 2-inch buds and an edible stem that is much like the stem of broccoli with its tender interior. Varieties will feature different colored flowers and even some buds tinged with purple that look great on the table.
Few other perennial vegetables are as well-suited to water conservation, and in particular those areas with well-drained soils, sloping ground and rainless summers. Each one lives for about 10 years before replacement is necessary. At the end of each season they are cut back to the root and growth begins again with fresh new green-gray leaves in late spring.
Artichokes, like all young things, require rich nutrition in their first season to encourage a larger root system and more growth points. When artichokes are grown in containers, be sure to fortify the soil with organic fertilizer. In ground, be generous with compost, too. Remember, it's nitrogen that drives the large production of silvery leaves, and these are what give it such a strong ornamental appeal.
You'll find artichokes in the Bonnie Plants displays for all-organic starters. Some garden centers sell much larger specimens in nursery pots, too, but these may not be organically grown. They're also available as seed or seedlings in many popular vegetable catalogs. Buying locally is advised since the bigger the plant, the better it will fare in the first year.
This is a great vegetable for urban gardens because it can be integrated into south-facing foundation plantings or perennial borders. Use in the background so the size of larger varieties doesn't overwhelm its neighbors. Nothing is more stunning in terra-cotta pots for a Mediterranean-style home on a veranda or in a courtyard.
Artichokes are a good value plant. Just make sure they're grown where you can reach the stalks to cut the bids at peak perfection.
Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at www.MoPlants.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 891, Morongo Valley, CA 92256. Scripps Howard News Service.