Native to the Mediterranean, artichokes were grown in ancient Greece and Rome. In the 16th century, Catherine de' Medici introduced the artichoke to France and scandalized the court when she fainted after eating an excessive amount of the succulent heads. Her gluttony, however, didn't create the scandal, but rather the artichoke's reputation as an aphrodisiac.
An unlikely-looking vegetable, the globe, or French, artichoke (Cynara scolymus) is a relative of the thistle, also having prickly leaves and a purple thistle-like flower. (It's related to neither the Jerusalem nor Chinese artichoke, both of which are grown for their tubers.) Artichoke plants send up stalks that produce flower heads (also called buds) protected by an armour of scales, and thus resemble large, silver-green pine cones. For the adventurous diner, the cooked scales can be dipped in sauce, then seductively drawn between the teeth to scrape off their delicious inner flesh. The centremost part of the head, or heart, has an incredibly rich, nutty flavour that's a gourmet treat. It's protected by prickly leaves and has a fuzzy, inedible “choke,” or core. Very young heads, four centimetres or less in diameter, haven't yet developed the choke so may be eaten whole. As an added bonus to their delectable taste, artichokes have been shown to be good for the liver and to lower cholesterol.
Most artichokes eaten in North America are cultivated in California as a perennial crop and are propagated from divisions taken from parent plants. However, plant breeders have developed varieties that can be grown as annuals from seed and will produce heads the same season as planted. These new cultivars make it possible for Canadians whose gardens have at least 100 frost-free days to grow this delicacy.
To successfully grow artichokes as annuals, choose varieties specially bred to develop heads their first season, such as ‘Imperial Star'. Start seeds early enough indoors and satisfy all the plants' needs so they'll grow and produce heads as quickly as possible in our short season.
Start seeds indoors eight weeks before the last frost. Plant half a centimetre deep, three seeds per 10-centimetre pot. Germinate between 21 and 26°C; seeds will sprout in about six days.
Once they've germinated, place them under a grow light or in a sunny, south-facing window and provide extra artificial light in the evening (they need 14 hours of light per day). When the seedlings develop their first true leaves, thin to the best plant per pot, removing any weedy-looking or misshapen seedlings.
Feed every two weeks with a half-strength fertilizer solution. As the seedlings grow, check their root systems to make sure the roots aren't becoming pot-bound; transplant into a larger pot if necessary.
Once the danger of frost has passed, slowly harden off the seedlings before planting outdoors, gradually exposing them to direct sunlight and cooler temperatures. Seedlings shouldn't be planted out too late: the plants need 10 to 14 days of temperatures below 10°C to initiate the formation of flower stalks.