One hundred percent of all artichokes grown commercially in the UnitedStates are grown in California. During the 1997-1998 crop year, artichoke acreage was 9,381 acres. Total crop value for the 1997-1998 crop season was more than $46 million. Approximately 75 percent of the state's total acreage lies within Monterey County. And while artichokes were ranked only 11th in crop value for this agriculturally rich area, with an estimated worth more than $37 million,growers point proudly to the fact that the artichoke is the county's Official Vegetable. Three-fourths of the state's artichoke acreage is located near Castroville, a town with a population of a little more than 5,000. Two major artichoke packers are located here, along with the nation's only artichoke processing plant. Is it any wonder that the townspeople have proclaimed Castroville "The Artichoke Center of the World," and that they celebrate with the annual Artichoke Festival in May? WHAT IS AN ARTICHOKE? A native of the Mediterranean, the artichoke is a perennial in the thistle group of the sunflower (Compositae) family. In full growth, the plant spreads to cover an area about six feet in diameter and reaches a height of three to four feet. Its long, arching, deeply serrated leaves give the plant a fern-like appearance. The Green Globe cultivar accounts for essentially all the artichokes grown in this area. The "vegetable" that we eat is actually the plant's flower bud. If allowed to flower, the blossoms measure up to seven inches in diameter and are a beautiful violet-blue color. The size of the bud depends upon where it is located on the plant. The largest are "terminal" buds produced at the end of the long central stems. These are the ones you are most likely to see from the car during a springtime drive throughout the area. Buds are smaller lower on the stem. LABOR-INTENSIVE CROP The main propagation method for planting artichokes is with root sections attached to basal stem pieces. These cuttings which are often referred to as "stumps," are obtained from established fields scheduled for replanting. Artichoke fields are maintained in perennial culture for five to ten years. Each cropping cycle is initiated by "cutting back" the tops of the plants several inches below the soil surface to stimulate development of new shoots. While California artichokes are available throughout the year, peak season is March through May and again to a smaller degree in October. They are an extremely labor-intensive crop as the harvesting is done entirely by hand; and, because artichokes on the same plant mature at different times, the same field will be harvested every seven days during peak season. Labor represents 40 to 60 percent of the growing costs. The largest and most of the smallest artichokes are sold to the fresh market. About one-fourth of the crop is used forcanned artichoke hearts and bottoms (crowns) or frozen, quartered artichokes. GROWING CONDITIONS The Green Globe artichoke prefers temperate climates--never too hot or cold. The central coast of California, where winters are relatively frost-free and summers are cool and moist with fog, is an ideal growing area. Here, too, are deep, fertile, well-drained soils which promote maximum root development. GETTING TO THE HEART OF THE MATTER The artichoke makes no concessions to those who want a quick meal. So, in this age of "fast food" and "quick fixes," what keeps this commodity growing? Serious artichoke eaters will tell you that the reason for eating an artichoke is its unique, nutty flavor. Most people cook the whole artichoke, and slip each leaf petal, one by one, through their teeth until they reach the delectable heart. Children love them because the get to eat artichokes with their fingers! The artichoke is fun to eat, and it's good for you. One 12-ounce artichoke is a good source of vitamin C, folate and potassium. It's low in sodium, fat-free and a dieter's delight at only 25 calories. In addition to eating them "straight up," many consumers have discovered that artichokes also make excellent additions to stir-fry and pasta dishes.