Artichokes have always had a special place in my heart.

I was raised by a Sicilian mother and grandmother and the image of my Nana’s stuffed artichokes on the Sunday table is still very clear in my mind. And, of course, I am a Californian – somehow we seem more inclined than others to seek out this unique vegetable – maybe it’s our climate, maybe it’s our West Coast on-the-edge-of-the-planet attitude. Anyway, if you haven’t tried this incredible food, then experiment. And, if you haven’t grown it, oh well, but don’t pass up the chance. Talk about a Jurassic opportunity – the only thing that has impressed me more than a healthy stand of artichoke might be a planting of the tropical-looking Gunnera with its four to six-foot wide leaves.

The most common artichoke in the market place is the large, green Globe. But other cultivars are available and those are the ones we tend to grow. We like the somewhat stronger taste and the color and variation we can get. The Violetto is small, shapely and purple tinged and cooks up very tender. The Grosso Romanesco is very large and also tinged purple – stuff bread crumbs and romano cheese between the leaves of this one and then cook it up.

We plant our seed up here in Northern California at the end of February or the beginning of March. We keep them warm and moist under cover in our hothouse and we usually pot them up once before putting them out after all chance of frost is gone. They are a genetically variable plant and will sprout sports that are different from the mother plant. They are commonly grown along the California coast where the temperature remains constantly moderate and the moist atmosphere keeps the plants cool. Keep them out of the searing sun if you plant in hotter locations – dappled light would work well. Around here, they are the most lush in the spring and in the fall when the summer heat is not a factor. They want well turned, very fertile and moist soil. Take the time to mulch carefully – at least 3-6 inches deep to keep their feet cool.

Harvest is usually in the Spring after planting, sometimes that fall. Then the plant is good for about 3-5 years. Although we have had a healthy producing ‘Choke plant for 15-20 years, beware though, the older they get the more they regress, growing spikes all over the plant and the buds.  Don’t forget to cut the buds before they burst into flower!  But I recommend leaving a few, ’cause the flowers are quite pretty.