By Dr. Mercola
While the thought of growing artichokes might be intimidating, I assure you that bringing a taste of the Mediterranean to your garden may be easier than you may have imagined. Artichokes are tasty when served fresh from the garden, and they can be successfully grown even in cooler climates.
If you've never had the pleasure of dipping steamed artichoke leaves in melted raw, organic grass fed butter, and using your teeth to draw out the tender meat, you don't know what you're missing! When all of the leaves have been savored, a further treasure awaits — the rich, earthy taste of the artichoke heart.
Artichokes not only have a taste and texture that is wonderfully unique, but they also contain high amounts of fiber and a myriad of beneficial nutrients, including vitamins C, K and B9 (folate), magnesium and potassium. Artichokes have been shown to help prevent cancer, regulate your blood pressure, promote healthy bowel movements and support your gallbladder, heart and liver. Given their many healthy properties, I encourage you to consider growing artichokes.
Interesting Facts About Artichokes
Native to the Mediterranean region, artichokes (Cynara scolymus) became scarce with the fall of the Roman Empire. After making a comeback in Italy in the 1500s, artichokes were introduced to the Americas by French and Spanish gardeners. California is the biggest producer of artichokes in the U.S. Other interesting facts about artichokes are:1
- Although commonly referred to as a vegetable, artichokes are actually a thistle that is part of the sunflower family
- Artichokes can be grown as either a perennial or an annual; perennial artichoke plants last up to five years
- When you let their buds open and flower, artichokes produce striking bluish-purple flowers that attract pollinators like bees and butterflies
Types of Artichokes
Artichokes come in several varieties, including:2,3
- Big Heart: Thornless, slightly purple variety that can handle some heat
- Green Globe: Heavy-bearing perennial that does best in ideal growing conditions, including California, where it is grown commercially
- Imperial Star: Adaptable and easy to grow from seed as an annual; recommended for gardeners in cooler climates (U.S. Department of Agriculture Plant Hardiness Zone 6 or lower4)
- Purple of Romagna: Italian heirloom favored by chefs for its tenderness and unique nutty taste
- Violetto: Oval-shaped Italian heirloom known for producing dozens of small side shoots
Three Artichoke Starting Options
Because artichokes take about six months to mature, you need to get a head start when planning to add artichokes to your vegetable garden. Below are three options to consider:5
- Direct seed: Start seedlings via direct seed in 4-inch pots about 12 weeks before the last expected frost in your area. Transplant seedlings eight to 10 weeks after seeding, and only after danger of a hard frost has passed and the soil has warmed. For best results, transplant your seedlings when they are about 8 to 10 inches tall, with stocky stems and two sets of true leaves. Due to their large size when mature, plant artichokes 2 to 4 feet apart
- Shoots taken from existing plants: If you have access to a healthy artichoke plant in the early spring, you can use a knife and a spade to remove a rooted shoot; when planted correctly and given proper care, the transplanted shoot will grow into a healthy, full-sized plant
- Dormant roots: You can buy dormant roots from your local nursery or return to the garden any roots you removed at the end of the last growing season; set the roots in the ground vertically, with the growth buds just above the soil surface
Artichoke Planting Tips
Artichokes thrive in full sun to partial shade. The soil should be moist and well-drained. Six to eight hours of sun a day is ideal. Because they grow new shoots every year, to encourage large, flavorful buds.
You should remove all but one or two of the strongest shoots. It will take at least two growing seasons before you can expect to see healthy, tasty artichokes, but it will be well worth the wait. Before you can even begin to think about planting artichokes, you must consider the condition of your soil.6,7, 8 Because artichokes thrive in moist, slightly acidic conditions, you'll want to:
- Strive for a soil pH of around 5.5
- Loosen the soil to a depth of 12 inches to ensure proper root development
- Work a shovel of compost or aged manure into the soil just before planting, and again annually; using a granulated organic fertilizer with a balanced nitrogen-phosphorous-potassium level is another option
- Apply a midseason dressing of aged manure
- Keep the soil evenly moist throughout the season; mulch as needed to retain moisture
Artichokes: Annual or Perennial?
In warmer climates, artichokes are traditionally grown as perennials, producing buds during the second growing season based on a period of overwintering. They take about 180 days to mature. If you live in a cooler climate but want to get artichoke buds the first year, you must direct seed and grow artichokes as annuals.
Rodale's Organic Life shares tips on how to perform vernalization, a method of tricking your artichoke plants into behaving as if they have already made it through their first winter so they will flower earlier. To do so, you must:9
- Expose young plants to a period of cool temperatures — in the range of 34 to 50 degrees F — by placing your transplant seedlings in a cold frame about six weeks before the last frost
- Maintain a temperature below 50 degrees F during these six weeks, which means you may have to open the lid of the cold frame as needed to maintain the desired temperature
- After the vernalization period is complete, plant the seedlings in the garden when there is no danger of frost
How to Harvest Artichokes
As mentioned in the video above, most plants will produce up to eight or nine artichokes. With so many buds drawing nutrients, only one or two of the artichokes will be large, and the rest will be small. If you want larger artichokes, you will need to cut off most of the buds as soon as they appear, retaining, at most, three to four of them.
Artichokes are ready to be harvested10 in mid- to late-summer after the stems have flowered and the artichoke buds are tight, firm and about 3 inches in diameter. To harvest, cut the artichoke stems at an angle about 2 inches below the head. Refrigerate unwashed artichokes in plastic bags, where they will keep for up to two weeks.
Wash them prior to cooking. Because aphids (and sometimes ants) can burrow into artichokes, if you notice these pests during harvesting, you will want to soak cut artichokes in a bowl of salted water to draw the pests out.
In most cases, after the first cutting, your plants will produce a second crop of smaller artichoke buds. If you allow the buds to open fully, the artichokes will no longer be edible but you will enjoy beautiful, ornamental flowers. After you have harvested all the buds on a stem, cut the stem down to or near ground level. After harvest, you have two options for keeping your artichokes going from one season to the next:11
- Mulching: In U.S. plant hardiness zones 7 and warmer, you can easily protect artichokes during the offseason by cutting back all the foliage (at or just above ground level) and placing a thick mulch of leaves or straw around each plant.
- Digging up roots: If you live in a colder region, you can dig up your artichoke roots, shake off most of the dirt and hang them in onion bags in your root cellar or another cool, dry place. In spring, these dormant roots will take off quickly when you replant them in the garden.
Saving Artichoke Seeds
In climates where summers are long enough for seeds to ripen, you can save artichoke seeds for future plantings. Harvested seeds will typically remain viable for about six years. The video above shows you how to collect seeds. The steps involved in collecting artichoke seeds are:12
- Choosing a large bud from one of your most vigorous artichoke plants
- Letting the bud grow until it blooms and produces a flower
- Allowing the flower to shrivel and turn brown
- Detaching the dried flower from the plant and storing it in a paper bag indoors for two weeks
- Plucking the seeds out of the dried flower and storing them for future use
Health Benefits of Artichokes
A 3.5-ounce serving of artichokes contains 47 calories and 5 grams (g) of fiber, 3 g of protein and 1 g of sugar. Among their many beneficial nutrients, artichokes contain high amounts of vitamins C, K and B9 (folate), as well as beneficial amounts of calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus and potassium. Artichokes are low in saturated fat and cholesterol. Some of the health benefits of artichokes are as follows:13,14
Boost heart health: Artichoke leaves contain ingredients shown to optimize your low- to high-density lipoprotein cholesterol ratios
Ensure healthy elimination: Due to high amounts of dietary fiber, artichokes add bulk to your stool that will decrease your susceptibility to diarrhea and constipation, while ensuring healthy, regular bowel movements
Prevent cancer: Artichokes are extremely high in antioxidants, including vitamin C, quercetin and rutin. Artichokes also contain high levels of polyphenols, which have chemoprotective qualities designed to slow down and stop, or even reverse, the effects of cancer in your body
Promote liver health: Artichokes have long been used as a liver tonic based on the presence of cynarin and silymarin, antioxidants that reduce and eliminate liver toxins, and possibly contribute to the regrowth and repair of damaged liver cells
Regulate blood pressure: Because they are a rich source of potassium, artichokes help regulate the effects of sodium on your body, which positively impacts your blood pressure
Support gallbladder function: Artichokes can soothe an inflamed gallbladder and promote healthy gallbladder function by stimulating the production and secretion of gastric juices, as well as bile
Three Cautions About Artichokes
While artichokes are an excellent source of nutrition to most people, they are not beneficial to everyone. You should pass on artichokes if any of the following situations apply to you:15
- Because artichokes are technically a thistle, not a vegetable, you may not be able to tolerate them if you have sensitivities to daisies, chrysanthemums, marigolds or ragweed. (Take special care if you are considering supplementing with artichoke leaf extract since it is a highly concentrated form that may have an even more potent negative effect)
- If you have gallbladder or liver disease, do not add artichokes to your diet unless advised by your doctor; a radical diet change has the potential to worsen certain aspects of your disease
- Consuming artichokes may make you urinate more frequently, which could be a concern if you are already dealing with an overactive bladder
How to Choose an Artichoke
When selecting globe artichokes from the market, choose them for their dark green color, compact leaves, heaviness and round shape. Loose leaves indicate the artichoke is past its prime, unless you plan to puree it for soup. Avoid artichokes that look dry or brown. A slight discoloration of the leaves may be a sign of frost damage, which some suggest gives artichokes a sweeter taste.
Because conventional artichokes are heavily sprayed with pesticides, buy organic as often as you can. Better yet, grow your own. Before refrigerating your artichokes, carve a thin slice off the stem, sprinkle the leaves with water and store in an airtight plastic bag. Use them within a week. I do not recommend canned artichokes.
Artichokes lose most of their nutrients when canned, and a somewhat lesser amount when frozen. When comparing fresh artichokes to processed ones, the loss of flavorful taste is the most outwardly noticeable difference.
The Best Part: Eating Artichokes
Because artichoke hearts are buttery with a somewhat nutty flavor, they make a wonderful accompaniment to grilled or sautéed fish, such as wild Alaskan salmon. Most often, artichokes are served as an appetizer (think spinach-artichoke dip), added to salads or dressed with olive oil, vinegar and herbs.
Whole artichoke buds are best roasted or steamed and served with a dipping sauce, such as melted raw, organic grass fed butter. You can always add garlic, lemon or mustard to your butter, if desired. To make roasted artichokes, follow these easy steps:
- Cut off the top third of the leaves and the stem
- Tuck a few garlic cloves into the center
- Spritz with oil and lemon juice and a shake of salt
- Wrap tightly with foil and bake at 425 degrees F for one hour and 15 minutes
When cool enough to handle, the leaves can be enjoyed when peeled one by one and raked through your teeth to extract the meat. Eating a whole artichoke is an act of patience and a joyful, communal art when undertaken during a family gathering or dinner party. For another variation, be sure to try my Fennel-Dill Artichoke recipe. I combined the flavorful goodness of artichokes with equally nutritious ingredients like fennel, dill, carrots and coconut oil.
The result: a scrumptious baked artichoke recipe you and your family will surely love. In whatever way you choose to enjoy them, I think you will find artichokes to be so tasty and healthy that you will be motivated to keep the plants coming back in your garden year after year.