Artichokes are special vegetables not only because of their fine taste. As ornamental plants, they are also extraordinary phenomena that amaze garden lovers.
Origin of the artichoke
The artichoke (Cynara cardunculus subsp. scolymus) is a gourmet’s delight and, in warmer climates, this perennial vegetable can be grown successfully. Artichokes originate from the Mediterranean region, where they have been cultivated since the first century AD. A member of the daisy family (Asteraceae), artichokes are also used as a medicinal plant. They are said to have digestive and cholesterol-lowering properties. In addition, artichokes have a high ornamental value, so the stately, herbaceous plants with their thistle-like appearance are often grown in the garden simply for their decorative appearance.
Appearance and growth
In addition to the pretty, two to three pinnately lobed, thorny leaves with grey felty hairs underneath, adult specimens produce large, cup-shaped inflorescences throughout the summer. These consist of numerous bracts and a fleshy flower-base. If the flower buds are not harvested in time, purple tubular flowers open. The large flower heads are a favourite with people and animals alike and are also used in floristry. In the garden or in a vase, their sweet fragrance attracts bees, bumblebees and other insects.
Until now, artichokes were only grown in wine-growing climates where the plants survived the winter without major damage. But even here, winter protection is necessary. However, varieties such as ‘Imperial Star’, ‘Vert de Provence’ and ‘Vert Globe’ can be grown as annuals in harsher climates. They produce many flower buds in the first summer.
Location and soil
Artichokes can be grown successfully in the garden in most areas that are not too harsh. They need a sheltered position, preferably in full sun. Artichokes also need a well-fertilised soil with plenty of humus. Stagnant moisture should be avoided, especially in winter. Once artichokes have survived one winter in the garden, they can grow there for several years. As time goes by, they will continue to draw nutrients from the deeper layers of the soil and produce more and more flower buds.
If you want the plants to grow vigorously and produce many flower buds in the same year, start sowing early. Artichokes can be grown indoors or bought as young plants. From mid-January, the plants can be sown in a light, warm place in a seed tray with humus-rich, loose soil. Soaking the seeds in warm water for a day will speed germination. A heated greenhouse is ideal for germination, but a window sill will do. At 18 to 20 °C (64 to 68 °F), artichokes will germinate in two to three weeks. After that, lots of light is needed to keep the plants short and compact rather than sprouting. As soon as the seedlings become too dense in the seed tray, they are pricked out and planted individually in pots.
After precultivation, when the seedlings have three to five leaves, plant them in a sunny bed with loose soil in mid to late April. Work three to five litres of compost per square metre into the bed beforehand. The planting distance should be 150 x 75 centimetres (60 x 30 in).
If the space is larger, use the space in between for fast-growing vegetables such as lettuce. Keep the soil moist until the plants have grown, then water less later. Artichokes are best used as solitary plants in vegetable gardens or flower beds. In a few years they can reach an impressive height of up to two metres. In less favourable locations, you can cover the soil with black, water-permeable weed fleece and cut crosswise at the planting sites.
Caring for artichokes
During cultivation, the plants should be fertilized once or twice and watered regularly. In the first year, the artichoke will produce only a few buds with fleshy scales. From the second year onwards, the crop is larger, but the plants must survive the cold season well. Sheltered from the cold wind, they can survive frosts as low as minus 10 °C (14 °F). If you are overwintering them outdoors, tie the leaves tightly together after harvest or cut off all the leaves, place a wicker basket over the plants and pile dry straw or leaves around them to hand level. It is safer to dig up the rootstocks, embed them in moist sand in boxes or large pots and place them in a frost-free, but preferably cool, room.
From the beginning of April, remove the cover outside. Artichokes that have overwintered indoors are then planted outdoors. After four years, the yield will decrease. The plants can then be divided or replanted. In winter, the roots must be protected from severe frost by a thick layer of leaves. Annual varieties do not need winter protection and can simply be replanted in the spring. If these varieties survive the winter well, they can simply be cultivated and you can harvest even more buds the following year.
When to harvest artichokes
The main harvest is in August and September, when you can harvest up to twelve flower buds per plant with delicate, fleshy flower heads. To eat, cut off the flower heads while the bracts are still tightly closed and before the scales turn purple. Always harvest the main flower at the top of the stem first. When the bracts open, the fleshy leaf bases become tough and the delicate flower base tastes dry. It is too late to eat them, but the blue-violet flower stems are still a great eye-catcher in the garden or vase. They are also a magnet for bumblebees. The dried flower stems can be kept for a long time and can also be used in dried flower arrangements.
How to use artichokes
Preparing artichokes is simple: wash the heads and place them in hot salted water for about 30 minutes. The scales can then be easily removed and the tender plant tissue at the base of the scales eaten. The tough remnants remain. But the best part of the artichoke is the flower base. It goes well with aioli or lemon herb vinaigrette. The artichoke is also used for medicinal purposes. They promote liver health and stimulate fat metabolism. Artichokes also contain bitter compounds that improve the digestion of fats and reduce the feeling of hunger.
Pests and diseases of artichokes
Artichokes are occasionally attacked by slugs, earwigs or aphids. Dark discolouration indicates infestation by the black bean aphid. In addition, the fine roots are sometimes nibbled by voles.