Very popular with the French and considered a delicacy, artichokes are particularly suitable as a first course. They are deeply sweet in flavor and hold with a meaty texture. As far as eye appeal, an oval shape is preferred although a cylindrical shape is also acceptable.
The artichoke is actually a giant thistle with green edible flower buds. Each bud is sphere-shaped and enclosed by overlapping scales that are inedible at the tip but richly tender and sweet to eat at the base.
The 'heart' of the artichoke is similar in consistency as the base of the outer scales. It is the prime morsel of the artichoke, often used as an hors d'oeuvre or in salads and casseroles. It, along with the base, are the only parts considered edible in most areas of the world. However, after the flower bud matures into massive flower heads, the whole thistle becomes tough and inedible.
In the garden, they have a rather theatrical fountain shape, spreading wide and growing to about four feet tall. If you should want a garden with artichokes, six plants is a good number to start with.
Though the plants prefer cool, moist summers with full sun and mild winters, they can grow in the hotter climates (partial shade) as long as the soil is kept moist. For cold winters, give them protection with a leaf cover and a turned-over basket, or bring them inside during the winter if temperatures get below 28 degrees fahrenheit. Again, make sure the soil is moist as well as cool and well-drained.
You'll probably want to get your starting plants in the spring from a nursery. If using seeds, you'll need more time to get them started. Sow indoors eight weeks before the last frost, putting the seeds in about 1/4 inch deep and 1/4 inch apart. The soil should be rich with organic matter as they do well with deep mulches, compost, and manure.
At about eight weeks old, transplant them outdoors. In order to induce budding, you'll need to make sure they get about a week and a half of temperatures under 50 degrees fahrenheit. Also make sure they are protected from any late frost. Add extra nitrogen halfway through the growing season and also after the harvest. The easiest variety to grow from seed is called 'Imperial Star.'
Pests include aphids, earwigs, and snails. If you notice any gray mold on leaves, destroy affected plants as it is like to be Botrytis, a fungus disease found in warm, humid summers. Destroy affected plants. Artichokes are perennials and will need to be dug up and thinned out every three or four years.
To harvest, cut off artichoke bud before it starts to open at about 4 inches below the bud. The younger the bud, the greater the delicacy. In the kitchen, have your lemon ready because after you cut the top inch or so off to remove inedibles, you'll want to immediately rub the edges with lemon juice to keep them from getting discolored. With your hand, peel back the outside layer of leaves.
To serve as a crowd-pleasing dish, turn the artichoke into a holder for a sauce or seafood after steaming or boiling it enough so that a knife will easily cut to the bottom of the choke. The young artichoke hearts can be sliced and eaten raw in a salad with dressing or simply by themselves with sprinkled lemon juice, olive oil, and seasoning. They are also delicious served warm with a hollandaise sauce.
Artichokes done well always impress both in the garden or on the table.