Editor's note: David Lendrum's "Landscape Alaska" column was not available this week.
WASHINGTON -- Autumn, soon upon us, is the season of artichokes. They are arriving by the crateful in supermarkets, roselike heads of brittle, overlapping green leaves ranging from the size of a peach to a grapefruit.
In the garden as well, artichoke season is peaking. Contrary to conventional wisdom, French globe artichokes can be grown in climates subjected to snow and freezes in the winter.
Granted, as half-hardy perennials, globe artichokes will achieve maturity with greater bulk and speed in a more-temperate climate than in our Zones 6 and 7. But their relative tenderness does not preclude success; winter protection, an enclosed garden, a site shielded from deadly winds, an unheated greenhouse -- these features used separately or in combination will contribute to the flourishing of artichokes.
Globe artichokes are large-leaved thistles; the edible head is actually the flower bud of the thistle. Leave an artichoke head on the plant to mature and, within a short time, the tight-leaved bud opens into a large purple bloom similar to a passion-flower blossom. The plant is attractive enough to be conferred a space in a perennial bed. Its thistlelike leaves betray its heritage, but there the similarity ends. The leaves are a lovely silvery green, soft to the touch and as big as mullein leaves, to which the artichoke also bears a striking resemblance in its growth habit.
Like many more-traditional vegetable plants, globe artichokes respond to rich soil, endless sun and plenty of room. The plants get large: One I saw in Emmaus, Pa., was the size of a fair-sized shrub, a good five feet in circumference and height. It takes at least three seasons and deep, rich soil for the artichoke to reach such proportions, though it will often produce a harvest in the first year. Artichokes start readily from seed. Sow them indoors in January: The early start is needed so that when the plant is set out in May it is big enough to survive pest assaults, notably slugs and black aphids.
If a little temperamental at the outset, artichoke plants settle in quickly enough and, with moderate policing by the gardener, grow without pause until a hard freeze, usually around late November or early December.
This summer has been kind to artichokes, as it has to much of the garden -- and the humans who tend them. In a more-typical summer, humidity can play a role in delaying harvest the first year.
Buds are cut off with shears or a sharp knife when they are about 4 1/2 inches in diameter -- the size of a large apple. Timing is important. Make sure the bud leaves are tightly overlapping, and the top of the bud is not beginning to sprout.
To prepare an artichoke, cut the base flat and place it in a pan containing about an inch of water; bring the water to a boil, and place a lid over the pot; reduce to a simmer and steam for 35 to 40 minutes, depending on the size of the artichoke. The artichoke is cooked when a fork can be inserted easily into the fleshy base.
Only the bottom leaves of the artichoke are eaten, where leaf meets heart; Once all the leaves are off, the best part is revealed -- the heart. First, remove its "choke," a cone-shaped center enclosing a soft, furry growth that would have been part of the bloom. The remaining flesh has a flavor that combines hazelnuts and sweet corn. A treat in itself, the artichoke as appetizer sets up the palate for the meal ahead.
Two artichoke imitators are the Jerusalem artichoke, actually a sunflower that grows in many parts of North America, and the Chinese artichoke, a member of the mint family that is prized in Asia. These two plants, very different in appearance and genetic makeup from the thistle artichoke, produce small tubers on their roots, which, when peeled and steamed, deliver a taste similar to that of the great globe. Jerusalem artichokes are available from many seed catalogs; Chinese artichokes can be purchased from Seeds Blum, 27 Idaho City Stage Rd., Boise, Idaho 83716 (1-800-742-1423; seedsblum.com). Both are hardy perennials.