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01

Sep

Artichokes

Globe artichokes are the most common type grown in California

  • crop type: row
  • size: 4 feet tall, 6 feet wide
  • leaves: long, spikey, silvery-green
  • major counties: Monterey, Riverside, Imperial, San Mateo, San Benito
  • area harvested: 9,000 acres
  • production: 56,000 tons/year
  • value: $63 million/year
  • fun fact: Castroville has an Artichoke Festival in May: www.artichoke-festival.org

Artichokes are giant thistles from the Mediterranean. A cool-weather crop, artichokes grow all year along the Central Coast as well as during the winter in Southern California’s inland deserts. California supplies most of the artichokes grown in the United States.

These striking silvery-green plants have leaves like no other crop: look for long, narrow fronds that arch out from a central stalk. Artichokes have stunning flowers — large and intensely violet — but commercial fields rarely bloom because the part we eat is the flower bud. The size of the bud depends on what part of the plant it comes from. Giant artichokes grow at the top of the stalk, mediums from side shoots, and babies at the base of the leaves.

Production is concentrated in Monterey County, where most artichokes are grown as perennials. Artichokes are cut by hand once or twice a week, as many as 30 times during a field’s production season. At the end of the season, the plant is cut back to the ground, leaving the 4-feet-deep root system intact. This stimulates new shoots and the entire plant grows back. To stagger production, fields are cut back at different times of year. A summer cut leads to fall, winter, and spring harvests, while a fall cut leads to a summer harvest. Perennial artichokes can be harvested for a decade. After that, however, the field gets so crowded with roots that it has to be dug up and replanted.

Planting artichokes as annuals in the spring is another way to stagger production along the Central Coast. The perennial harvest peaks in the spring, while the annual harvest peaks in the fall. Growing artichokes as annuals is the only option in the inland deserts of Southern California, which gets too hot during the height of summer. Fields are planted in late summer, after the longest, hottest days are over, and the harvest begins in winter and lasts until spring heat ends the season.

Artichokes grown during the winter sometimes get superficially damaged. When temperatures dip below freezing, the outer leaves turn from smooth and green to brown and flakey. But don’t be put off by that ugly look — these frost-kissed artichokes are prized for their intense, nutty flavor.

photo: China Crisis/Wikimedia Commons
© Robin Meadows & Janet Byron