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Yuma artichoke seeds well-traveled
- A young Marilyn Monroe was crowned the “Artichoke Queen” in Castroville, Calif., in 1947.
- There was also an “Artichoke King,” but he didn't do pageants. Ciro Terranova was a gangster active in the 1910s and 20s whose specialty was a produce racket.
- Dried artichokes can be used in potpourri.
- The mascot of Arizona's Scottsdale Community College is the Fighting Artichoke.
If you've ever eaten an artichoke in Peru, it's possible that your vegetable had its origins in Yuma.
Yuma's agricultural industry goes beyond the romaine, broccoli and melons grown for the fresh market – e.g., the grocery store produce section. It's also a fine place to grow produce for seed. Pat Cooley of Keithly-Williams Seed has a diverse portfolio, but the artichoke seed is still important for him. It's a specialty product, and he has buyers all over the world.
The exotic artichoke will have a homecoming next weekend when Lettuce Days chefs demonstrate with samples that had their genesis in the Yuma soil.
Only until fairly recently, artichokes were cultivated from cuttings, Cooley said. He said cultivation from seed came about around 20 years ago, when the University of California and the U.S. Department of Agriculture put their heads together and developed varieties such as the Imperial Star, which grows in the Imperial and Coachella valleys. With this evolution, artichokes have become more accessible and competitors to the coastal varieties were born.
Artichokes are still a bit of a novelty, though. Even in produce-savvy Yuma, “a lot of people have never even eaten a fresh artichoke,” Cooley said.
Many haven't even seen them.
“You can't believe how many snowbirds will stop us in our fields to say, ‘What are these? Are these artichokes?'”
Artichokes have been grown in Europe since antiquity. The Spanish brought them to California in the 1800s. Artichoke production is highly centralized in the United States, with almost all American-grown artichokes being grown in California, specifically, Monterey County; Castroville, Calif., touts itself as the leader in artichoke farming.
Only about 100 acres in Yuma are given to artichokes, all raised for seed. (And only about 8,000 acres for fresh market nationwide, Cooley said.) Even on that limited local real estate, Cooley said as much as 70 percent of what's planted will be rogued, or culled, to achieve uniformity.
Here's how the seeds are gathered:
Plant as normal for fresh market, in the late summer to fall. Let the artichokes fully mature – that is, let them go past the time they'd be harvested for fresh market, as the artichoke you eat with dinner is actually a bud.
By May or June, the vibrant, dinner plate-sized purple flower will have bloomed. It looks like a large thistle, because it is. Bees also go absolutely bonkers for these flowers, Cooley said.
Allow the flower to dry down. By July, the plants should look just about dead. This is the time to dig out the seeds – which will take some effort. They're protected by a husk so hard they need to be busted out with a combine.
The seeds will soon go to growers in South America, China, or central California. Key artichoke grower and Keithly-Williams customer Ocean Mist Farms, based out of Castroville, will be providing the goods for the Lettuce Days demos.
A lot of people don't know what to do with the artichoke, Cooley said. Luckily, there are plenty of videos online showing how to cook and even eat an artichoke, starting with the petal and going down to the heart.
“Once people start eating them, they really, really like them,” Cooley said.
Hillary Davis can be reached at email@example.com or 539-6857. Find her on Facebook at Facebook.com/YSHillaryDavis or on Twitter at @YSHillaryDavis.