You, Too, Can Grow Artichokes

artichokes on Las Posas Road, near Malibu

artichokes on Las Posas Road, near Malibu

In a world of uncertainty and rapid change, a vegetable garden may be unique in providing a sense of security, reliability and control. With each bite of a carrot, snap of a pea pod, or crunch of a fresh broccoli spear, you may take comfort from the thought that, as long as you can grow your own food, you will at least have something to eat.
Although a vegetable garden may be subject to unforeseen natural events – a sudden freeze or heat spell, for example – you can fairly accurately predict that if you prepare the soil with compost and fertilizer and follow the directions on the seed packet, you will see a crop that you can harvest and eat within a few weeks (radishes) to a number of months (onions), depending on what you decide to grow.
If you plant artichoke seeds, you may have to wait six months to see a crop, but you will have highly ornamental foliage to marvel at along the way.
No vegetable plant has bigger, more handsomely cut foliage than the artichoke. When you see an artichoke plant (Cynarus scolymus) for the first time, you may think you are seeing a giant thistle, which is, in fact, an accurate assessment of its identity. Leaf characteristics are often misleading in identifying plants. Plant identification ultimately depends on what the flowers, not the leaves, look like.
Yet, in this case, there is similarity in both leaf and flower form. Prickly thistle weeds and artichokes are related members of Asteraceae, commonly known as the daisy or sunflower family. If you allow an artichoke to bloom by refraining from cutting its edible flower buds, you will see the largest thistle flowers of them all. They will be characteristically lavender violet in color, just as you see them on thistle weeds only much bigger, up to half a foot in diameter.
I was reminded of artichokes by Elaine Miller, who e-mailed me pictures of a plant she has grown in West Hills.
“I have a globe artichoke plant that I started last year from a 4-inch pot,” she wrote. “Now, it’s over 10 feet across, more than 5 feet tall and still growing. It is full of large and medium artichokes – I counted 12 easily. I’ve never seen one this big. Guess I must have done everything right, including plenty of water and sunshine.”
Although artichoke plants, which are perennials, are water needy the first year, they become more drought tolerant in their second and third year. However, the edible flower buds will have added succulence if you adhere to a steady water regime, where plants are soaked every other day in hot weather.
It sounds like you are growing an ‘Imperial Star’ variety. This hybrid artichoke is the most widely grown variety in California.
‘Imperial Star’ produces vegetative offshoots at its base, and these can be detached and grown on their own into mature plants, although the quality of their artichokes may be inferior to those harvested from seed grown plants. Artichokes are heavy feeders. Prior to planting, add lots of compost and mix fertilizer rich in potassium and phosphorus into the soil.
Q: “I have this orange tree which I planted about 20 years ago. About a year ago a new trunk grew out of the base of the tree, spread branches with thorns and bearing lemons about the size of small grapefruits. The original orange tree has no thorns and still produces oranges.
I think it is a Valencia orange tree. Is this a common thing? Should I have cut the lemon trunk when it was small or would this have harmed the original tree?
The lemon trunk is about 3-inches in diameter and with the branches is about the same size as the orange tree. Do you have any suggestions? I really don’t care about the lemon tree because the lemons aren’t really good. They have wrinkly thick skins and lots of seeds.”
– Beverly Pleskus, Encino
A: Your Valencia orange has a rough lemon rootstock and that explains what you see.
When a Valencia tree produces suckers below the graft union, the point where a Valencia bud was grafted onto a rough lemon seedling in the nursery, any of those suckers, left unchecked, will grow into its own tree.
Suckers grow more vigorously than regular shoots and that explains its rapid development of a trunk.
You are correct in your description of rough lemon fruit, which are barely edible. Rough lemon is used as a rootstock because it imparts virus resistance to the bearing variety that is grafted onto it. You should carefully cut away the lemon tree that has developed. You will need to use a pruning saw, which is smaller and easier to handle than a carpenter’s saw, to cut the lemon’s three inch diameter trunk.

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