Artichokes on the hoof

Yesterday, coming back from the Ross Road YMCA (where I’d just been through my first Enhance Fitness class, an hour workout for seniors; note final cluster simplification in enhance for enchanced), Kim Darnell and I went past a house with, in its front yard, some remarkable tall green stems with huge green buds on top of them, looking like a child’s idea of a Martian plant, a pole with a vegetable on top. A photo from the net, not as perfect as the plants in south Palo Alto, but it’ll give you the idea:


Some of you will recognize these as artichokes on the hoof, on a farm like those in Watsonville (in Santa Cruz County) or Castroville (in Monterey County) and surrounding areas of the Artichoke Empire. Others will, like Kim, will be startled to discover that this is how the artichokes we eat grow.

The next surprising thing is that globe artichoke plants are just really big thistles. From Wikipedia:

The globe artichoke (Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus) is a variety of a species of thistle cultivated as a food.

The edible portion of the plant consists of the flower buds before the flowers come into bloom. The budding artichoke flower-head is a cluster of many budding small flowers (an inflorescence) together with many bracts, on an edible base. Once the buds bloom, the structure changes to a coarse, barely edible form. Another variety of the same species is the cardoon, a perennial plant native to the Mediterranean region. Both wild forms and cultivated varieties (cultivars) exist.

This vegetable grows to 4.6–6.6 ft tall, with arching, deeply lobed, silvery, glaucous-green leaves 20–32 in long. The flowers develop in a large head from an edible bud about 3–6 in diameter with numerous triangular scales; the individual florets are purple. The edible portions of the buds consist primarily of the fleshy lower portions of the involucral bracts and the base, known as the “heart”; the mass of immature florets in the center of the bud is called the “choke” or beard. These are inedible in older, larger flowers.

The plant can be grown as an ornamental, if you have the space for a really big, showy plant, like the silver-leaved beauties in this photo:


Think of them as fast-growing shrubs. Some people will think of them as giant leafy plants from dinosaur times. (I think they’re beautiful, but some people find them threatening.)

If you don’t snip off the buds and cook them, they’ll open up into giant thistle flowers, pretty in a wild way but no longer palatable:


Like virtually all supermarket vegetables, artichokes are the end product of selective breeding from wild forms. Lettuce started as a weed whose seeds were used for oil, carrots as the weed we now know as Queen Anee’s lace, and so on. The wild form of the globe artichoke is, like Queen Anne’s lace, a common weed, known as , notable for the stout spines on its leaves, stems, and bracts around the flowerheads; the plant is also incredibly invasive.  From the California Invasive Plant Control site:

Artichoke thistle is found in disturbed places, to 1,650 feet (<500 m), throughout the state, except deserts (Hickman 1993). It is common in annual rangelands, especially with a coastal influence, but also is found inland in disturbed grasslands or abandoned agricultural fields and is associated with overgrazing (Thomsen et al. 1986). It was one of the worst pests on California rangelands by the 1930s, invading over 150,000 acres in thirty-one counties and requiring prodigious and expensive efforts to eradicate or control it. By the 1980s the worst concentrations of the plant were found in Orange, Solano, and Contra Costa counties, with locally dense populations elsewhere in the Coast Ranges, Central Valley, and Sierra Nevada foothills (Barbe 1990).

Where it’s found in California:


(Of course, it extends south into Mexico.)

It looks like the ancestor of the modern globe artichoke was biennial, growing in the first year and blooming in the second. The most common cultivars now are perennial, but don’t bloom until the second year (and will then produce for several years thereafter). True annual cultivars have also been developed,

Kim asked if globe artichokes can be grown in containers; they would, after all, make spectacular plants on my front patio (though they might not get enough sun there). The answer is yes, but they’re gigantic plants, so we’d need a really big container, at least two feet deep and three feet across. And that’s just for one plant.

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