Two Flowers to Eat

Celebrating summer by harvesting squash blossoms and artichokes.

May 8, 2017

HomesteadIssue 24: May/June 2017

We love them fried, stuffed with cheese, baked, steamed, and in our soups or salads. Squash blossoms are every bit as delicious and almost as versatile as the fruit that they father. I say “father” because most of the squash blossoms that make it to our mouths are male flowers. Female flowers are just as edible as their male counterparts, and some say more flavorful, but they’re often left on the plant to produce fruit so that we can have our blossoms and eat squash, too. If your plants are already producing a glut of fruit, harvest some female flowers for a taste-test of your own. In this case, try some of the flowers with the immature fruit attached—you won’t be disappointed.

Female squash blossoms are easily distinguished from the males once you know what to look for. The male flowers often bloom first, appearing on long, thin stalks that twine through the plant’s foliage toward its outer boundaries. Female flowers are generally larger and grow on shorter, thicker stalks that are closer to the plant’s center. The stalks of male flowers are the same thickness from the base of the flower to where the stalk attaches at the stem, whereas a distinctive bulge is often visible where the female flower attaches to its stalk.

You can also see the dead giveaway of a tiny squash beginning to develop at the base of the older female flowers. An immature fruit can be enjoyed along with its blossom, but it won’t continue to develop on the plant if the flower is harvested. Eat the blossom and fruit now or leave them both on the plant to make a mature fruit. You’ll want to leave female flowers and at least a few of the males for a good squash harvest later on.

If you can’t tell males from females from the characteristics mentioned above, you can put on your botanist hat and take a peek into the flowers themselves. In the center of each blossom there will be one of two structures: something that looks almost like a little flower with several structures growing around a central opening (the stigma, a female flower organ), or a single structure that looks something like a mascara brush (the anther, a male flower organ). There you have it: your next great party trick.

Harvesting blossoms just before or just after they open is ideal. If left too long on the plant, the flower’s texture can change, and the petals become even more tissue-like and hard to work with. Cut the stem about an inch below the flower to leave yourself an easy handle. Give each flower a little shake and make sure that any insects inside the blossom have a chance to escape while you’re still out in the garden. Blossoms that were harvested before they were open can be cleaned and prepared by gently teasing the petals apart with a toothpick.

Because the smallest amounts of pollen have the potential to cause an allergic reaction in those with sensitive pollen allergies, the structure in the center of each blossom that distinguishes male from female (anther or stigma) is often removed before cleaning. Wash and dry your blossoms and use them immediately for the best flavor, or wrap them in a damp paper towel, put them in a plastic bag, and store them in the refrigerator for a few days.

The most commonly encountered squash blossom at farmers’ markets, grocers, and in restaurants is zucchini, although all squash blossoms (summer and winter varieties) are fair game. Smaller blossoms are easier to fry; larger ones are easier to stuff. Zucchini’s medium-size blooms work well for either treatment, but they’re not the only squash blossoms you should be eating. When you try a new kind of squash, make sure to sample the blossoms, too.

Another flower that we enjoy eating is the artichoke. Technically, it’s the bud that we harvest, well before the large purple or white flower opens. The fleshy bits that we love to dip in butter and scrape onto our tongues are not leaves or petals but bracts, with tender pieces of the artichoke heart at their bases. Bracts are different from the plant’s true leaves, and they generally serve another purpose. In some plants they help attract pollinators, while in others they may offer the bud protection from bruising or extreme temperatures.

In the case of the artichoke, a stout thorn adorns the tip of each thick bract, making it clear that the plant’s bracts serve to protect the developing flower. They’ll become tough like the armor they’re meant to be as the bud develops. For more of the tender, meaty bits, it’s best to harvest artichoke buds early when they’re still tightly closed, before the bracts begin to separate. Harvesting time begins in early spring across much of Baja Arizona. Warmer temperatures may have given some of us an early start this year, and those at higher elevations may still be eagerly watching buds develop. Once they’ve bloomed, they often take a rest and go dormant through the hottest months of summer.

If you’ve made room for one or more of these giant thistles in your garden then you already know what a statement they can make. An artichoke plant can reach about four feet tall by six feet wide with long, spiny, silvery green leaves that arch gracefully from its center. Each plant has the potential to sprout several flowering stalks that will yield several artichokes per stalk.

Seeds are sown outdoors in fall or indoors in the winter, and most of us plant new starts or crowns in February or March (though you can plant them in fall to get a jump on spring growth if freezing isn’t a concern in your garden). It’s possible to get a modest harvest the first year, and each plant will keep producing for several more years. In our climate, artichokes are perennials that produce well for four to seven years, but most plants will need to be divided every few years, after new artichoke plants start to sprout up around the original plant. To divide, separate the little offshoots from the mother plant once they’re around eight inches tall. Push a shovel straight down into the soil between the mother plant and the sprout to separate them, and then straight down into the soil in a circle around the sprout. Try to avoid disturbing the roots of the mother plant as much as possible, but get as much of the sprout’s roots as you can. Replant the sprout in another garden bed or in a container to share with a friend.

The showy artichoke flowers and the pollinators that they attract help to alleviate the sting of a missed bud harvest. Artichokes are in the aster family, which means that they’re cousins of the sunflowers, and they bear huge thistle-type flowers that reach up to seven inches in diameter. Those of you still wearing your botanist hats might be interested to know that, like other plants in the aster family, the large “flower” that you’re admiring is actually a cluster of many small flowers on a flat flower head. Each purple or white tube of the thistle is an individual flower capable of producing its own seed. When we’re preparing to cook an artichoke, the “choke” that we remove from the center is the group of undeveloped flowers that would bloom if the bud were left on the plant.

Although the flowers are fun to see, keep in mind that allowing an artichoke plant to flower will reduce its eagerness to develop new buds, so forgoing the flowers will help you keep the food production going. You’ll likely be rewarded with a second harvest in fall if you can remove the flowers before they start to produce seed.

Gardeners in our part of the country are often excited when they hear about how heat- and drought-tolerant the artichoke plant is. It’s true that this Mediterranean native prefers full sun, unless you’re growing them in the lower elevations of Baja Arizona, where they’re a little happier through the summer if they get some afternoon shade. It’s also true that the artichoke doesn’t need much water to produce some buds, but you’ll get a higher yield of buds with more tender bracts and hearts if you give your artichoke plants a good, deep drink on a regular basis. Plants that must be tough to survive will produce tougher buds, and fewer of them.

Besides giving them a fair amount of space and a moderate amount of water, it’s a good idea to make sure your artichokes have adequate drainage. They don’t mind regular moisture, but they don’t like to sit in soggy soil for too long. Test the drainage of a particular spot before installing new plants by filling the planting hole with water, letting the water drain away completely, and then filling it up at least one more time. If it takes longer than a day for the water to drain away after the second or third fill then you’ve got a drainage problem, so it’s best to pick a different spot if the drainage can’t be improved.

Mulch your plants well to protect their roots if your garden gets cold in the winter, or grow them as an annual if you’re at a higher elevation that experiences longer periods of freezing temperatures. All you need are 90 to 100 frost-free days to make at least a few tasty buds. ✜

Amy Belk is a garden writer and photographer, a certified arborist, and a certified nursery professional who has been learning from her garden for 16 years. She and her husband homestead on a little piece of the desert in the heart of Tucson.

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