Varieties of heirloom artichoke seeds have been cultivated in Sicily during the time of the ancient Greeks and in Naples since at least the ninth century. They originated in North Africa and are members of the thistle family and related to the South Mediterranean cardoon. While they remained popular these regions, they did not spread to Northern Europe until later.
The introduction of heirloom artichoke seed varieties to Florence in the mid 1400’s paved the way for Catherine de Medici to bring them to France. Although they were considered an aphrodisiac, and considered not proper for consumption by women, she ate and enjoyed them publicly. Over the next 400 years they attained gourmet status, due in part to their general lack of availability.
The artichoke spread to the Americas where an attempt was made to include their tough fibers into the paper making industry in the late 1600’s. The efforts were undertaken in in Germantown, Pennsylvania by a printer and his partner, a bishop of the Mennonite church; however they were anything but successful.
The artichoke continued to spread across the U.S. during the following centuries, finding popularity in Louisiana and California. One of the first commercial ventures in the U.S. of this delicious vegetable was shipped from Half Moon Bay in California in 1906. Castroville, California lays claim to the title “the Artichoke Center of the World” with annual May celebrations.
While their aphrodisiac reputation has lessened, people in many cultures continue to grow and enjoy heirloom artichoke seeds. They consist of a stem, leaves, thistly flower and heart, and are harvested in a variety of sizes. Young artichokes can be consumed almost whole, while older ones may be tougher and slightly bitter. The leaves can be dipped in butter and scraped across the teeth and the stem and heart can be cut and dipped. Stuffed artichokes are popular and the vegetable is used in numerous recipe combinations. Artichoke hearts are also a popular addition to salads.
Gardeners in areas that don’t freeze will find the most success, however they can be grown as an annual plant in most areas. Three popular varieties of Artichoke Heirloom seeds are available for planting and should be started well in advance of transplanting.
• Green Globe Artichoke Seeds with an 85 day cycle are possibly the earliest and most adaptable for gardeners who live outside of the ideal 7-10 zones and must raise them as annuals.
• Imperial Star Artichoke Seeds should bear their delightfully tender globes approximately 90 days after transplanting. They don’t have thorns which make them much easier on the hands while dipping.
• Purple Italian Globe Artichoke Seeds are more tolerant to heat and cold, however they have a longer, 120 day cycle.
Start Heirloom Artichoke seeds early for transplanting as soon as the last frost passes to ensure they have time to develop. Gardeners may want to try each variety to determine which works best for their zone and climate. The delicious flavor of artichokes is well worth the wait and effort required to reach its heart.