‘The grandest of all silverlings’ is how Graham Stuart Thomas, one of the most renown garden writers, described artichokes. If you are growing them in your garden, you will know already how much space they require; their spreading, silver-dust leaves easily reach 90 cm in length, and plants can reach a height of 2.5 m or more. Grown well, and happily thriving, they are one of the most spectacular plants around.
Boundaries become blurred when making definite distinctions between globe artichokes and cardoons. Both belong to the Cynara genus and are fairly similar in appearance. In Mediterranean countries, young flower heads of globe artichokes and tender stems of cardoons are harvested for eating. Either plant, however, can be used for both of those culinary purposes. Having said that, cardoons tend to have softer and more tender foliage, and globe artichokes often have larger and more spectacular flowers.
As a vegetable, globe artichokes are delicious. In the north of England, we tend to know them best as artichoke hearts; the pale, tender innards of young flowers, neatly prepared and dressed in oil, available at the delicatessen counter or in jars. In the north of Italy, the large, young flower heads, still attached to a length of stem, are bought fresh in the market. Spines are removed from each flower bract, and the flower head is prepared and roasted with a meat or vegetable filling. In the Italian markets you can buy artichoke flowers without spines, but I am told by friends there that the best artichoke flowers for cooking like this are those with the finest display of spines.
Growing artichokes from seed is straightforward and satisfying. Seed sown in March or April will germinate quickly and the young plants’ silver leaves develop shortly afterwards. By August, plants are keen to be free from their pots and are ready to be planted out. This is where great care must be taken. Young globe artichokes will not tolerate frost, and if their roots linger in wet winter soil, they will surely rot. Free draining soil is essential for their survival, especially in their first winter. Choose a warm, sheltered, sunny spot for them, so that even in winter, the soil receives a little warmth from the sun. If very hard frost is forecast, cover them over with straw held in place with twigs.
Artichokes grown for seed can be variable. Three years ago, I sowed ‘Rouge d’Alger’, a variety which promised medium-sized plants with purple-red stems and purple-tinged flowers. Six surviving seedlings have grown into specimens with very different characteristics, ranging in height from 1.5 – 2.5 m, and with flowers and stems of varying appearance. One has produced a mass of small, silvery flowers, while another has exceptionally large flowers with dark purple bracts. All are beautiful in their own way.
Once established, artichokes are undemanding. For those who like to garden with nature on their side, they are also the perfect plant. They seem impervious to slugs, free-range chickens leave them alone, and bees adore their thistle-shaped, purple flowers which are fully open in July. Just watch out for high winds; tall stems and heavy flowers tend to be susceptible to being blown over.