Artichokes: A Remarkable Thistle

In a contest of “most striking vegetable,” artichoke would be a top contender. This plant’s formidable size (3 to 4 feet high by 2 to 3 feet wide), spiky leaves, and tall stalks topped by enormous, edible flower buds give it a decidedly prehistoric appearance. The leaf-like brachts and center (heart) of the immature artichoke flower are the tasty parts with which most of us are familiar. But what else is there to know about artichoke? We decided to investigate. Read on to find out what we learned about this unusual veggie, and for tips on how to grow it yourself!

Artichoke tidbits:

  • Artichokes are a cultivated variety of the cardoon, which is a member of the thistle family. We harvest and eat artichoke buds before they mature into flowers, but if you allow a bud to open, you’ll see that the (gorgeous) bristly periwinkle bloom bears a strong family resemblance to thistle.
  • Artichokes were originally cultivated from wild cardoons in North Africa, and spread through Mediterranean regions of Europe. Central Texas has a similar climate, so this veggie thrives here, too.
  • Aphrodisiac qualities were attributed to artichokes in medieval Europe.
  • The artichoke plant is extremely rich in antioxidants, and artichokes have been shown to have a variety of other health benefits, such as reducing cholesterol levels and enhancing the growth of beneficial gut bacteria.
  • Artichokes can be eaten in a variety of ways, including: pickling the hearts in vinegar and eating them on pizza; frying hearts whole; roasting small, tender heads with olive oil and salt; and boiling the heads, then peeling off brachts and eating them with lemon and butter. Delicious!
  • Artichokes are a great source of nectar for pollinating insects like bees and butterflies.

How to grow artichokes:

  • Plant from transplant, bare root, or seed, in an area with plenty of sun (some dappled shade from the west is okay).
  • The time to plant is spring, after the last frost (now!).
  • Artichokes need consistent watering and soil with good drainage.
  • Provide plenty of space for artichokes to reach their full size (see above).
  • Harvest by cutting heads about the size of a fist, leaving about two inches of stem attached. Most heads will be ready to harvest in April and May.