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Wild Artichokes: Very Few People Have Their Best Interests at Heart

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<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Orange County historian and author Jim Sleeper once asked a botanist friend if wild artichokes, also known as artichoke thistles, were an endangered species.

To Sleeper’s surprise--since botanists generally are inclined toward conservancy--his friend said no, but that he “devoutly wished they were.”

So do many others.

“We’ve been spending $100,000 a year for more years than I can remember trying to get rid of the stuff,” said Gilbert G. Aguirre, vice president of operations for the 40,000-acre Rancho Mission Viejo, where the plant--with its feathery white seed pods--was once referred to as “Mission Viejo snow.”

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Two years ago, the county Board of Supervisors earmarked about $250,000 for a three-year effort to control the fast-growing spiny plants--sometimes called cardoons--in 1,200 acres of county-owned Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park and O’Neill and Laguna Niguel regional parks.

Cattle Won’t Eat the Stuff

Though the plant, with its crown of purple blooms, often looks pretty from a distance, it loses its appeal on closer inspection.

Cattle won’t eat wild artichoke, nor will humans, even though it shares the same aristocratic name as the supermarket “globe” variety. Nor will man or beast even touch it, as the thistles of these two- to six-foot-tall plants, which seem to dominate surrounding vegetation, are extraordinarily sharp.

“They’ll jab right through a cowboy’s leather chaps if he’s unlucky enough to get too close,” said Bob Clark, vice president of operations for Rancho Mission Viejo.

Dean Buchinger, Irvine Ranch’s vice president for agriculture, said fighting the weeds has been “an ongoing struggle for me since 1958, and for my predecessors.” The ranch itself no longer runs cattle but leases rangeland to several ranchers, and now they “are having the same problem we did,” he said.

The state Parks and Recreation Department has spent $15,000 a year for four years to battle the weeds--which have scratched hikers and horseback riders alike--at Crystal Cove State Park north of Laguna Beach, according to Debbie Hillyard, the department’s resource ecologist in Sacramento.

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Plant Likes Bay Area

Besides the hills of Orange County, Cynara cardunculus also seems to favor rolling terrain east and northeast of San Francisco Bay. In Contra Costa County, Agriculture Commissioner Jack de Fremery said a control program has cost $15,000 a year “for many years,” and in Solano County, Commissioner John Donohue said the cost is about $8,000 annually.

Bill Tidwell, supervisor of the Orange County Environmental Management Agency’s vegetation section, said the plant is not native to California but apparently got a start before the turn of the century, when edible artichoke plants were imported from Mediterranean countries for commercial growing. But some of those seeds, borne in feathery white pods, were carried long distances by the wind and “escaped.” And without proper horticultural attention, the species tends to “go wild,” producing a thornier plant with practically inedible, small fruit.

A similar phenomenon took place in the 1890s in South America where naturalist Charles Darwin told of seeing hundreds of square miles of artichoke thistle growing uncontrolled on the pampas, according to Craig D. Thomsen, postgraduate researcher in agronomy and range science at the University of California, Davis.

While wild artichokes seem to have few friends, the plant seems to have few enemies.

The county’s Tidwell said he has seen some field mice and small birds eat some of the wild artichoke seeds, but cattle won’t touch them. They do forage on more appetizing grasses nearby, however, and when those grasses are depleted, the wild artichoke moves in.

Battle Being Won

To get rid of the plant, Tidwell says, the county uses six hand crews each spring, then applies “a powerful defoliant called Roundup that must be applied selectively to the artichoke thistles so as not to harm other vegetation.”

Tidwell says the county is winning its three-year battle, with a 90% control rate over the billions of plants scattered across 1,200 acres in three county parks.

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“We don’t use the word ‘eradicate’ because that seems to be impossible,” Tidwell said, “but we feel we are getting them down to a controllable level.”

Neither the state nor the county is responsible for efforts to knock down the wild artichokes that grow on private lands--although the two big ranches, Mission Viejo and Irvine--cooperate to the best of their ability.

In the case of Irvine Ranch, Tidwell was only half joking when he said that “condominiums and other developments” are wiping out acres of the pesky plant.

But there are uncounted acres of cardoon sprouting over broad fields on private lands in such places as Laguna Hills and along Santiago Canyon Road, and small clumps of one or two plants can be seen by some back roads.

In time, they, too, probably will give way to development, Tidwell said.

Cardoon blossoms once were of use to interior designers, but for now, even that has faded away.

2 Cents a Blossom

“Several years ago, we had a guy who paid us two or three cents per blossom,” said Mission Viejo’s Clark. “He picked them after they were dry in the fall, dyed them different colors and sold them to decorators.

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“Finally, we told them he could have the blossoms free if he would drop these little pellets in the clumps while he was there. He didn’t know the pellets were defoliants and that he was wiping out his own business.”

Historian Sleeper recalls that Walter Knott, founder of Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, planted three acres of the good globe variety about 1940, served the fruits in his restaurant but “showed such a small profit he gave up on them.”

Even Margaret Carlberg of Huntington Beach, a teacher, lecturer and all-around expert on the use of weeds as food, who cooks up curly dock cobblers and mustard leaf dip and other exotic natural dishes for her family, had little complimentary to say about the wild artichoke.

Carlberg would say only that the head of a wild artichoke is about the size of a Brussels sprout, is not too flavorful, and the thorns and spikes do not lose their sharpness even when cooked.

WILD ARTICHOKE Name: Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus) Flower: Giant spiny artichoke-like electric-purple flower heads bloom May though September. Plant: Stout stems, to two feet; leaves with numerous long yellow spines, from two-to-six feet. Locale: Hills of Orange County; rolling hills on east side of San Francisco Bay area. Source: Field Guide to Pacific States Wildflowers

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