Extension Educator, Horticulture
March is national artichoke month. I'm not sure if that means you are suppose to take an artichoke to dinner or have an artichoke for dinner. Of course artichokes would prefer the former. They still think the book, To Serve Artichokes, is a treatise on proper obedience to artichokes.
If you look at an artichoke plant, you would figure it to be the last plant anyone would want to eat. Globe artichokes are super thistles in every way. Imagine 1.5-3 foot long silvery spiny leaves on a plant that can reach 5-6.5 feet tall. It produces a large globe-shaped (also spiny) leathery flower head. Does any part of this suggest, "I think I'll eat that"?
Artichokes are native to Mediterranean region and the young leaves have been grown as greens or for salads for a couple thousand years. The globe shaped flower head came later onto the culinary scene. The edible part is the soft base of the flower bracts and the immature base of the flower head known as the heart. If left to develop, purple flowers would soon appear.
The whole globes are prepared by steaming or boiling. The stiff globe bracts are pulled off, dipped in sauce or butter then scraped across the lower teeth to remove the soft fleshy base. Much of the flower head is discarded. The artichoke hearts are often sliced, pickled, and bottled.
Globe artichokes are grown commercially in France, Italy, and Spain. In the United States just about 100% of the commercially grown artichokes are grown in California and just about all of those are grown in Monterey County. On your next California vacation be sure to stop by Castroville, the artichoke center of the world.
Globe artichokes and a related plant called cardoon are showing up in flower gardens for their blue-grey leaves and their dramatic texture. Although the plants are perennial, they are not winter hardy here. Unless mature plants are planted, they probably will not flower in our climate. However, the foliage has plenty to offer without flowers. But be prepared for questions from your garden visitors such as, "what is that?"
Jerusalem artichoke might also be found in a garden, but is a completely different plant. Curiously Jerusalem artichokes are not from Jerusalem and are not artichokes. They are, however, native to North America where they have been cultivated for hundreds of years. At six feet tall with a small yellow daisy flower they look nothing like globe artichokes, but more closely resemble their cousins, the sunflowers. The edible parts are the small underground tubers. They can be baked, fried, or boiled in the same way as white potatoes and can be quite tasty.
Jerusalem artichokes are easily grown here. They are perennial and are almost too perennial to the point of weediness. Any pieces of tuber left in the soil will re-sprout the next year so thorough harvesting is important to reduce overgrown beds. The tubers can be planted in spring as soon as soil conditions allow.
Improved selections of Jerusalem artichokes have been developed that have smoother tubers than the knobby, somewhat hard to clean, old varieties. These include 'Stampede', 'Fuseau', 'Long Red', and 'Golden Nugget'. Tubers are seldom found locally in retail stores, but can be purchased through catalogs. Once they are planted there will be plenty to share with all your gardening buddies.
The tubers get sweeter after a frost. They can be dug anytime from September until the ground freezes and again in spring before new growth starts. Beds can be mulched heavily and tubers harvested as needed in late winter and early spring.
March 10, McLean County Master Gardeners' Home, Lawn and Garden Day in Bloomington,IL. Several presentations and hands-on workshops. My program will be Fantastic Foliage. http://mclean.extension.uiuc.edu PH: 309-663-8306