Everyone knows what Artichokes look like, right? Of course. They come in a jar marinated in oil and vinegar and garlic. If you look at my planting calendar you will see that in many parts of the country it’s the time of year for planting Artichokes, it’s also time to plant a couple of other things, which are known as Artichokes, but are quite different in almost every way.
Globe Artichokes (Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus) are what we call the Artichokes known to us from Mediterranean cuisine. They are the flower buds of a perennial thistle, originally native to Southern Europe. They are easy to grow in most parts of Australia, though they may be susceptible to cold in some areas without protection during winter. The plants are attractive, and are sometimes incorporated in ornamental gardens just for their impressive spiny foliage and silvery appearance. But to be honest, they take up a huge amount of space, and produce a very meagre return, once a year. Basically, if you are have limited space, I’d give them a miss.
I would not say the same of the terribly named Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus). I say terribly named, because neither part of that name is accurate. It is not from Jerusalem, and is almost exactly unlike an Artichoke. This relative of the Sunflower is originally from North America, where it can still be found growing wild throughout the warmer states like California. Though botanically it is in the same family as the true Artichoke, the daisy family (Asteraceae) the relationship is distant. The edible part of this plant is the tubers, which form in tight clumps around the base of the plants, and can be dug up in winter. While they are difficult to peel because of their knobbly shape, they are relatively flavourless, the starch-like texture being reminiscent of potatoes, and they can be used in much the same way.
In fact it is not starch, but inulin that is stored in the tubers, which is only partially digestible by the human digestive system, and is suitable for diabetic diets. It may also cause bloating and gas in some people, due to this lack of digestion. There is some interest in the crop being used to create ethanol fuel, too. Apparently, early Italian settlers in the US called the plant “Girasole”, which probably became corrupted to Jerusalem over time, and the flavour has been compared to Artichoke by more than one taster. Many people are trying to popularise the names “Sunchoke” and “Sunroot” as alternative names, to avoid confusion. The plants grow easily, and can be left in place without much trouble, though tuber size and quality does decline with time. Try planting them with a perennial climber, like a Runner Bean (Phaseolus coccineus) to maximise the vertical productivity, the tall Sunflower-like plants provide sturdy support, and provide much needed shade in summer.
The third plant I wanted to mention is the Chinese Artichoke (Stachys affinis). Presumably this picked up the Artichoke moniker because of the tubers it produces being compared to the Jerusalem Artichoke, though it’s a tenuous comparison. This plant is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae), and closely related to the common ornamental Lamb’s Ears (Stachys byzantina). The crunchy tubers are commonly used in China and Japan, less so elsewhere. The leaves may be eaten, but usually only in emergencies. Again this plant can be pretty much left alone, and it’s unlikely every tuber will be found at harvest, so it will most likely spring up on its own year after year. I grew mine in a pot, so I could easily find them when the plant top died back.
Anyway, it’s the right time to plant any of these three plants, but as I said, unless you have heaps of space, I would avoid the Globe Artichokes, and possibly stick to the other two. But I do like perennials that don’t need replanting every year, it’s so much easier that way.