Globe artichokes are beautiful, healthy and delicious

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Globe Artichoke Picture courtesy Celia FinnimoreGlobe Artichoke Picture courtesy Celia FinnimoreLearn how to grow and harvest globe artichokes with their amazing health benefits, and find inspiration on how to use them in the kitchen. Read all about them below.

They are no relation of the tuber-like Jerusalem artichoke, and the globe artichoke, which is a large member of the thistle family that includes milk thistle, daisies and sunflowers, is considered to be the ‘true’ artichoke. It is thought to have originated in southern Europe, around the Mediterranean, and there are references to it being grown in Italy and Sicily from around 300 BC. In the ninth century it was being cultivated by the Moors in southern Spain, and it is said to have been introduced to England in the sixteenth century. Both the ancient Greeks and Romans considered it to be a delicacy, as well as a liver tonic and an aphrodisiac.  Today they are grown for their edible immature flowers and are noted for their numerous health benefits.

The leaves which are called “bracts” cover a fuzzy centre called the “choke”, which sits on top of a meaty core, called the “heart”. The edible portion of the buds consists primarily of the fleshy lower portions of the bracts and the heart. The choke is the mass of immature florets in the centre of the bud, and these are inedible in older, larger flowers.

There are several varieties available to gardeners in South Africa: ‘Green Globe’ produces large green heads with thick, fleshy scales, and a purplish base; ‘Violet De Provence’ produces large deep purple heads; and ‘Franchi Sementi’ produces heads with a rich purple-violet colour.  

Health Benefits:

Globe artichokes are reported to contain the highest level of antioxidants of all the vegetables, and  have been used in traditional medicines for centuries. Cynarin, the main constituent in globe artichokes, has a powerful effect on the production of bile and fat-digesting enzymes, stimulating liver function and lowering cholesterol levels. The lowering of cholesterol levels is the result of increased bile production and reduced absorption of cholesterol in the intestine with less cholesterol being synthesised in the liver and more being eliminated. As a result of this positive effect on managing cholesterol, the plant may be used to help prevent fatty deposits building up inside the wall of the artery which reduces blood flow and pushes up blood pressure, and thereby protects against heart disease.

The plant also contains significant levels of vitamin C, folic acid, potassium and fibre.

Globe artichokes are widely used in traditional medicine as a remedy for water retention and liver ailments.  It is thought that they may also aid digestion and stomach acidity. And, because they contain a lot of soluble fibre, they won’t destabilise blood sugar levels.

In the Kitchen:

If you didn’t grow up eating artichokes and want to cook them for the first time, they might seem a little intimidating, but don’t worry, they are actually very easy to use in the kitchen, and they can be boiled or steamed, stuffed and baked, braised and even grilled.

To prepare them for serving whole, cut the tough tips of the leaves off with a scissors, holding the stalk to keep the artichoke steady. Then, using a knife, slice the base off so that it will sit upright, before trimming off the pointed top (the younger the artichoke, the less you’ll need to cut off). Pull the pale centre leaves out, then scoop the choke out with a spoon, without disturbing the heart underneath. To prevent browning, drop each one in a bowl of water to which a little lemon juice has been added. Steam them or boil them in salted water for about 35 to 45 mins. When they’re ready you should easily be able to pull out a leaf. Drain upside down.

Iron, copper and aluminium cookware may cause artichokes to discolour; stainless steel, glass or enamel is better.

One of the easiest ways to cook them is to steam or boil them, but many cooks prefer steaming over boiling because boiling artichokes tends to water-log them, and steaming cooks them with just the right amount of moisture. Adding a bay leaf, some garlic, and a slice of lemon to the steaming water will infuse them with even more flavour. You can steam artichokes on the stovetop or in a pressure cooker, but although pressure cooking is faster, you have less control over the outcome, and it’s easy to overcook them. Once they are tender, serve them with lemon juice, butter or garlic butter, and salt. Another yummy way to eat them is to remove the cooked leaf scales one by one, dip them in melted butter, vinaigrette, or hollandaise sauce, and then suck out the juicy flesh from each scale, finishing off with the succulent base.

A delicious way to bake them once they have been steamed or boiled is to pull out the central leaves and  scoop out the choke before stuffing them with chopped garlic and parsley, grated parmesan and bread crumbs, and seasoning with salt and pepper, then drizzling with olive oil and baking them in the oven.

To grill or braai them simply cut them in half lengthways, remove the choke, brush with olive oil and grill for 30 mins, or until tender. They can also be marinated before grilling.

Choose artichokes that feel heavy when you pick them up. If they feel light, they’re probably a bit dried out and not as meaty as they should be. If you squeeze the artichoke, the leaves should ‘squeak’. The leaves should be closed with just a little separation, not flayed wide open. Remember an artichoke is a flower bud, and as it ages, the leaves open up wider. So an artichoke with wide open leaves may be on the old side.

If an artichoke looks like it has been burned by frost, no worries, in fact, these less-than-beautiful artichokes can taste even better than those not touched by frost and often command a premium price because of it.

Globe artichokes are best eaten on the day they’re bought or harvested, but will keep in a perforated plastic bag in the fridge for a couple of days.

There are many delicious recipes available online for artichokes, like artichoke spinach and cheese pie, artichoke pizza with creamed spinach, artichoke pea and courgette (eggplant) salad with pistachio pesto, artichoke risotto with peas, and courgette (eggplant) and barley artichoke tart with bacon, to name but a few, but often they are just perfect used in the most simple ways - the French love to spread them on buttered toast, and the Italians make the heart into a simple pate.

Globe Artichoke Flower Picture courtesy Julie RedmondGlobe Artichoke Flower Picture courtesy Julie RedmondIn the Garden:

If you don’t have a vegetable patch, or it is too small to grow globe artichokes, pop them into your garden beds. As a garden plant, the spiky silvery-green foliage is striking and unusually beautiful, looking rather like a giant fern. And, any buds that are not harvested will open into beautiful, large peacock-purple coloured flowers that will enhance any garden bed, and dried, they make beautiful indoor decorations.

As each plant grows up to 1.8m high and almost as wide, the effect is magnificent, whether in the flower, herb or veggie garden. Artichokes look striking as a border along one side of the vegetable patch or along a pathway, but can also hold their own as a focal point in a bed or large container.

Companion Planting:

Mint, marigolds, nasturtiums, coriander, sunflowers, tarragon, cucumbers, and rhubarb make good companions for globe artichokes, and tansy and pyrethrum will help keep pests at bay.

Cultivation and Harvesting:

Artichokes are a cool season crop that grows best in daytime temperatures of 24°C and night time temperatures of 13°C.  Good crops are also produced in temperatures ranging from 7 °C to 29°C, and although they will tolerate temperatures above 30°C, the quality of the edible flower bud will be reduced.

In areas with cool day and night temperatures (i.e. cool coastal climates) the period of flower bud induction is extended, thereby lengthening the production period.

Artichokes aren't hardy enough to overwinter in areas with very cold winters, and although mature plants usually survive heavy frosts, their yield may be reduced. In very cold areas choose a hardy variety from a local supplier and grow it as an annual, with 10 days' exposure to cool daytime temperatures during spring. Freezing in spring damages the bud bracts, causing blistering of the outer bud tissue and giving it a whitish appearance, but this does not affect eating quality.

Artichokes can be grown on a wide range of soils, but are bred for richer soils, and can develop root systems 90 to 120 cm deep, so it is essential to prepare the beds well. The plants will not thrive in a clay soil with poor drainage, producing the best crops on deep, fertile, well-drained soils. Lighter soils that have excessive drainage and poor moisture-holding potential should be avoided or amended by digging in manure or compost into the top 25cm of soil before planting. They will tolerate moderately saline soils and handle alkaline soil conditions better than most garden vegetables. The optimal pH for growing artichokes is 6.5 to 7.0.

Allocate a space for your artichokes in a warm, full sun position, and keep in mind that the plants will reach a mature size of +-1.8m tall with an almost equal spread. They are generally sown or planted out in late winter, spring and early summer.

Sow the seed 13mm deep in a seedbed, sowing two or three seeds per station, and allowing about 1.5m between the plants. Each planting ‘station’ should be dug over to a depth of 25cm, and formed like a shallow dish. Thin the young seedlings out at each station, leaving only the strongest seedling.

Alternatively, seeds can be started in small pots about 7.5cm in diameter, using a good compost mix, and these will usually flower in the same year they were sown. When the seedlings are a reasonable size, with at least five true leaves, transplant them into their permanent position in the garden, and water well.

Container-grown plants or suckers can be purchased from your garden centre, which, although a bit more expensive than seeds, are generally superior to seed-raised plants. In cold regions these are usually planted out in late winter, spring, or early summer.  In warmer winter regions they can also be planted out in autumn. Plant only strong healthy suckers which are about 25cm long, and space  them about 1.5m apart.

Once established in the garden, the plants can be propagated from rooted suckers. Select healthy pieces about 20 to 30cm long with at least two shoots. If you have a friend with artichokes in the garden, ask them to gift you with a few.

Keep the beds free of weeds and mulch with well-rotted manure or compost in spring when the soil is warm and moist. Feeding in spring with general purpose fertiliser for vegetables will also increase yields.  Globe artichokes should be well watered, and especially during dry weather.

Globe artichokes flower in spring to early summer and the flower heads or globes can be harvested when they are 8 to 10cm in diameter when the scales are still tight and fleshy, and before they open and start to flower. Cut the centre head first, using a sharp tool and then cut the harvested stem back by half. After harvesting the main head, secondary heads will appear, and these too can be harvested when large enough.

Artichokes are short-lived perennials that should be replaced after three to four years. The second and third years are their most productive. To keep your stock young and vigorous, divide the plants every three to four years, and to ensure a continuous crop, plant a few new plants each year.

Plants can be propagated from suckers cut from the base of the plant with a sharp knife, leaving part of the root attached.

In autumn, once the plant has finished flowering, cut the shoots back to about 30cm high, and in cold regions cover with a frost cover.  New shoots will start to appear in spring and the cycle will restart to produce a new crop of delicious flower buds.

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

If grown correctly in the garden globe artichokes are not usually affected by life threatening pests or serious diseases.

The artichoke plume moth (Platyptilia carduidactyla) is the most devastating pest of artichokes. The insect lays eggs on the underside of the fuzzy leaves or on the stem below the buds. The larvae tunnel into the buds, stem and foliage, damaging the bracts and receptacle and distorting and stunting young buds. The insects reproduce throughout the year, particularly where there is continuous artichoke production. Control depends on strict sanitation, including removing infested plants.

Aphids including the bean aphid (Aphis fabae), green peach aphid (Myzus persicae) and artichoke aphid (Capitophorus elaeagni) can be a problem at certain times of the year. In addition to affecting growth, the artichoke aphid may cause sooty mould on the buds, resulting in yield loss.

Look out for cutworms in the soil, and caterpillars which feed on artichoke foliage and buds.

Serious infestations of two-spotted spider mites (Tetranychus urticae) will result in a loss of plant vigour and yield.

Larvae of the chrysanthemum leafminer (Phytomyza syngenesiae) causes damage to the foliage by mining the leaves.

Slugs and snails feed on the leaves and rasp off the outer surfaces of artichoke buds, blackening the surface and lowering their quality.

Field mice and other rodents can cause considerable damage by feeding on the fleshy roots, young shoots, and developing buds of the plants.

Powdery mildew and leaf spot can cause serious losses in artichokes. The pathogens attack the bracts and foliage and can lead to premature leaf drop.

Verticilium wilt causes wilting, chlorosis and stunting of plants. Diseased plants produce smaller buds and if infections are severe, the plants may collapse. Annual artichokes can be rotated with broccoli to help reduce inoculum levels and manage this disease.

Botrytis rot (Botrytis cinerea) is common during rainy weather and prolonged periods of moderate temperatures and high humidity. The fungus usually invades tissue damaged by frost or insects, with a grey or brown fungal growth developing on the affected plant parts, and millions of spores quickly develop and are spread by the wind.

Curly dwarf is a viral disease that severely stunts and eventually kills off infected plants. Symptoms include curling leaves, plant dwarfing and reduced bud production. Buds may become misshapen and remain small. Curly dwarf is insect-transmitted but the specific vector is not known. The only known control measures are to use non-infected planting stock and the immediate removal of infected plants.

Bacterial crown rot causes stunting of artichoke plants and wilting during hot weather. In advanced stages, the plants may collapse. The crown and root tissues become soft and start rotting, turning black or brown. The only known control is to use clean propagation material and to avoid spreading the disease during harvesting and propagation.

Black tip is probably a physiological disorder that usually damages only the exposed bracts of small axillary buds. The tips of the affected bracts turns dark brown or almost black, becoming dry and leathery. Although the edible portion of the bud is not affected, the bud is rendered unmarketable. Black tip appears most frequently during sunny, warm, windy conditions that increase the growth rate and put plants under moisture stress. The exact cause of the disorder is not known.

Pets:

Artichokes are not toxic for dogs, cats, and horses

Caution:

Breastfeeding mothers should avoid globe artichokes as they contain a substance that curdles milk.

The information contained within this website is for educational purposes only, documenting the traditional uses of specific plants as recorded through history. Always seek advice from a medical practitioner before starting a home treatment programme.