That most civilized of thistles, the artichoke, grows on a sturdy stem amid deeply cut, silver-green leaves that arch gracefully to give the plant a fountainlike appearance. It's the unopened flower buds you cook to eat. Rinse them, snip off their thorny tips, then boil them. Serve hot with melted garlic butter or hollandaise sauce, or cold with mayonnaise seasoned with tarragon, mustard, or dill. If you leave the buds on the plant, they open into sumptuous, purple thistle flowers that are handsome in fresh or dried arrangements.
Artichokes need mild winters and summers. They thrive in coastal gardens, particularly in central California ― the epicenter of Western artichoke culture ― where they grow into leafy mounds 5 feet tall. (In hot interior climates, they may grow only half that tall.)
They're propagated in winter or spring from root divisions; these are sold bare-root or, more often, potted up.
WHERE IT GROWS: A dependable perennial crop in Sunset climate zones 8, 9, and 14 through 24. Elsewhere, plant in spring when divisions become available at nurseries, and hope for the best. In the desert, grow plants in filtered light, out of direct afternoon sun.
PLANTING AND CARE: Space divisions 4 to 6 feet apart, with growth buds or shoots just above the soil surface. Bait for snails and slugs.
Mulch plants well to keep roots cool and moist in summer. Feed in spring or fall; water whenever the soil surface beneath the mulch dries out. In cold-winter climates, cut plants down to the ground after harvest in fall (unnecessary in mild-winter climates). Replace them every five years or so.
HARVESTING: Pick buds when they're small by cutting stalks 2 to 3 inches below buds with a knife. You can eat buds whole when they're smaller than an apricot. As buds mature and grow, there's more to eat, but also more to discard, as scales become hard and stringy.
Along the central California coast, plants can produce two crops a year. After you harvest the first buds in June, cut the plants down almost to the ground, and they will regrow, giving you a second harvest in autumn. Elsewhere, expect one crop, usually in early summer.
BEST VARIETIES: 'Green Globe' is the standard California artichoke, but there are hardy varieties like 'Imperial Star'. The purple, egg-size 'Violetto' is also becoming popular.