The Northern California town of Castroville calls itself the "artichoke capital of the world," although that's really not true. Italy, particularly in the south, produces more artichokes -- the world's largest harvest, more than 10 times what is picked in California.
But the plant with Mediterranean origins can thrive in Southern California, too. Artichokes have become fairly ubiquitous here because they are ornamental as well as edible. The plant's scrumptious immature flower buds can grow as big as a bocce ball.
On the sidewalk outside of Los Angeles Eco-Village, near First Street and Vermont Avenue, gardeners have artichokes coming up around benches made of recycled concrete. George Patton, one of the resident gardeners, points out the black sooty mold on the leaves, probably from aphids. Good thing ladybugs are in profusion, feasting on the pests.
Patton said he has been releasing ladybugs for years but hasn't seen them in the garden until now. "Nature takes time, sometimes," he said. (For advice on aphids and other artichoke problems, see the UC Davis site.)
For the edible bounty that will follow, Patton can thank the Moors. The word artichoke, in fact, is based on an Arabic word for thistle. Moors brought the plant to Andalusia about 800, and a thousand years later Spanish immigrants started growing the plant in California.
Artichoke bracts (or leaves) and the heart (the flesh protected by the bristles of the choke) are delicious. Artichokes can be boiled, smoked, fried, stuffed, roasted.
The robust plants can dominate a space, easily getting 3 feet wide and nearly as high. If gardeners allow the flowers to develop, usually later in the season when the buds are smaller, they emerge with a primeval, eye-popping purple burst. When the color fades, the dried flower heads are worthy of a vase.
Globe artichokes (Cynara scolymus) can be found at nurseries through Southern California, particularly now. Seeds don't grow true, so it's better to get rooted plants. They need a well-draining, well-composted soil, and the soil should stay moist during growing season. Add a hefty dose of aged manure to the soil when transplanting from pot to ground.
Artichokes don't like being near trees or in standing water. At the end of the season, the plants should be cut back to soil level. It's likely new shoots will come up.