I probably could have counted on one hand the number of artichokes I’d eaten until I started growing them. And I had no idea how incredible and prolific they could be until I lived in a place where artichokes were perennial.
Now I can hardly imagine springtime without them.
The globe artichoke is a thistle (not to be confused with the very different Jerusalem artichoke, which is a sunflower). It grows as a large rosette of leaves and can reach over 1.5 metres tall. The edible part is the unopened flower bud. If you let the buds mature, they open into giant purple flowers that bumblebees can’t resist.
Artichokes are the same species (different variety) as cardoon which is more commonly planted as an ornamental. Cardoon flowers are smaller, and it is generally the leaf stems that are eaten. I grew cardoon for food briefly, before realising that blanching the leaves (by wrapping the plants in straw and cardboard as they grow) is time-consuming, and the final product—the cooked leaf stems—tastes a lot like artichoke, only more bitter and less rich. (Then, of course, I tried to get them out of the garden—it took four years—they are thistles after all) Now I keep just one in the flower garden as a stunning centrepiece plant.
The first records of artichokes come from ancient Greece, where wild varieties were selected and bred into the large-flowered plants we grow today.
Today Egypt and Italy produce about half the world’s artichokes, but with new cultivars that can tolerate cold winters, they can be grown just about anywhere. Put them in the perennial part of your garden, and even if you don’t like to eat them, you can enjoy their beauty!