Why artichokes? By any other name would they taste the same, these are reckoned to be similar and are so called. And although widely different plants these do indeed have some similarity in their rich aromatic flavour however it is there any resemblance ends. Except perhaps with their useful ability to produce crops in less than perfect conditions. Indeed these can be so reliable they can be considered the almost perfect stand-bys for famine, planted out of the way and forgotten about until needed. But of course like all crops all the artichokes respond well to better conditions giving bigger tastier crops.
Of the three the Globe Artichoke is without doubt the most useful, and attractive. The huge bluey thistle like plants can be used very effectively in ornamental beds and borders and they are competitive enough to still give good crops in such difficult situations. (They will produce a crop in almost any place they can survive.) If the flower buds are not picked for eating these open into huge bluey purple thistles beloved of bumble bees and making excellent long lived cut flowers. Some, slightly more tender, varieties such as some Italian sorts have purpley red flower buds which taste excellent and look even more attractive than the normal green. There are a great number of strains now lost and a collection could be very interesting.
(Cardoons are very similar, and more like the wild form. These resemble Globe artichokes in most ways except their flower buds and flowers are not as big and have more numerous smaller ‘scales’. They can be grown for ornamental use but are no good for eating except when grown annually from seed in grossly rich conditions for their leaves which are blanched then boiled like cabbage.)
Globe artichokes make big plants and need to be several feet apart to do well but can be planted closer as an informal hedge, the thorny seedling varieties doing a good job. They may live for decades but like most herbaceous plants benefit from splitting up and replanting every five or so years. It needs not be said that the richer and moister their soil the better they do. They thrive in the milder wetter regions but do fine for me in dry cold East Anglia. They do much better if the flower buds are removed and eaten rather than if these are left on which can exhaust the plants. (To eat them- Cut the buds with an inch of stem, boil immediately in salty water for twenty minutes or so, once the bud cannot be lifted by a ‘scale because it pulls off then it is ready. Pull off the ‘scales’, ‘leaves’ ‘petals’ or ‘sepals’ or whatever you want to call them, one at a time. On their base is a tiny morsel of flesh. Dip this in mayonnaise, or butter, or Bechamel or Bearnaise sauce or whatever, then nibble it off. Then the next ‘scale’ and so on. Each gives a bigger morsel till the ‘choke’ or thistle like downy cone shaped bit is reached. This is not eaten but pulled off it’s basal plate or ‘heart’. This ‘heart’ is divine, the best bit, of the same fine aromatic flavour but quite big and meaty. In tims of surplus it is often skipped to directly and the ‘scales discarded unnibbled. Surplus globes can be boiled and their hearts extracted to be used for pizza toppings, pickled for antipasto, or made into delicious patés.
If the globes are infested with black-fly immerse them in salty water before boiling and most will vacate. Otherwise they suffer few problems. In very cold winters the crowns may be lost but can be protected with fleece, straw, or best of all bracken. When autumn tidying do not cut the old stems to the ground but a foot high. Push the off-cuts in as an extra ‘hedge’ around the crown - this thicket will hold several handfuls of dry leaves in place over the crown protecting it well against cold. (Unused dried stems are quite thick and tough and bound together make good wild life shelters which can be hidden under evergreens and in hedges.) Slugs can ruin the young shoots, even killing the crowns in bad years so remove the leaves in warm wet springs to let the birds get at them. And be warned geese will eat the plants away totally devouring every bit deep into the ground.
To get the plants you can buy or beg offsets or thongs from established clumps. These will give you the exact same variety and if someone has excellent croppers is the most reliable method of getting a good bed. Cut good strong offsets a finger’s length tall from the outside of an existing clump together with their roots in early spring and plant these directly where they are to go in weed free rich moist soil. Deflower promptly any attempts all that first summer and feed and water religiously. In following years you will get good crops just like the donor plants’.
Or you can start them from seed. This gives a number of averagely good plants, with some awful performers, some miffies and sometimes, rarely, an improved sort, and rather too often thorny brutes that have good enough flavour to make you retain them but regret it ever after. They are easy and fairly quick from seed. Sow in early spring in big pots and plant them out as soon as the frosts are over just where they are to crop. Watch out for slugs and aphids, water well and deflower promptly if they try to, even before the heads are big enough to use. (The Italians eat the smallest ones pickled whole.). The small crowns will be able to crop lightly the next year, and heavily thereafter for up to fifteen years or so. However examine all in their third year (when they have settled down) and ruthlessly exterminate and replace those with inferior globes. Get rid of the smallest heading and those with heads with many small scales. Thorny sorts can be irksome but are excellent for allotments where they are near impossible to nick at night, and they often have the best flavour.
Jerusalem Artichokes, Helianthus tuberosus, actually preceded potatoes in historical introduction but never proved at all popular. Their smaller size, stronger flavour and serious wind provoking properties seem to have kept them a minority interest. But they are unbelievably pest and disease proof, drought and near flood proof, poor soil does not deter them and they will store in the ground indefinitely until wanted simply looking after themselves for years. True you can get bigger better crops by growing them in the vegetable bed- but then you will never get rid of them. So they are always relegated to an out of the way corner, or as a wind screen. They can grow six or seven feet easily in a season with thin sunflower like stems and leaves so make an excellent informal hedge- though they may need some wires and posts to keep them all upright in windy areas. They do cast a lot of shade and can dwarf small trees and steal all the moisture all round, another reason for relegation to some corner. Some varieties, such as Fuseau, flower with small sweetly scented sunflower like blooms which are an unexpected bonus even though these are a close relative of sunflowers. However they barely deserve a place in the back of an ornamental border as they are too tall, though in difficult situations they do have sheer robust reliability. Like other herbaceous plants they just need their withered stems tidying in winter. These are so thin as to compost fairly easily.
Any small tuber will start a new plant and as they have few pests or diseases you may as well use supermarket ones as try and find fresh ones from a seeds merchant. Anyway the tubers do wither so are best eaten as soon as dug and do not store well out of the ground. If hard frosts threaten then cover them with a layer of straw or shredded paper and a plastic sheet so they can be dug even if the ground freezes. In theory you can try and select for rounder less knobbly crops by planting the best shaped largest ones, but it is slow improvement if any. Traditionally these are peeled ( it is hard as they are small, irregular and very knobbly) then used as a mash or in a soup. Both will have you bubbling till dawn. I suggest first slicing them, peeling the slices which is easier, and then deep frying these. This makes them tastier, crispier and far more acceptable as a dish than the usual wetter ways of serving this vegetable.
The Chinese Artichoke, Stachys affinis, resembles the Jerusalem in some small way. Well it is much smaller. The stems and leaves resemble a mint or lemon balm and rarely make a foot or more in height. The tiny tubers do look a bit like the other in as much as they are twisted, irregular, and hard to peel. Once boiled and fried in butter and black pepper they are a delicious hors d’oevre though too fiddly to be a main dish or substantial accompaniment. Of the three artichokes this one is the more likely to be lost in cold wet winters and it is prudent to save some of the tubers, in pots of almost dryish sand, under cover. However with a simple covering to keep out the worst of the winter frost and damp these can go on for years with no attention.
Oh yes, and for those from South America, you may know of the White Jerusalem Artichoke, Bomarea edulis, but I’ve not yet been able to try this. Does any one know if it tastes anything like a Globe or Jerusalem artichoke?