Castroville, Calif., eat your artichoke heart out. Florida is now growing the large edible flower heads.
That is, if University of Florida researcher Shinsuke Agehara can get the chilling effect he is aiming for.
"If they don't have cool weather, they can't produce buds. The cool weather is the environmental signal that triggers the budding process," said Agehara, an assistant professor of plant physiology at the University of Florida Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Wimauma.
Since his first success with them in coastal Texas during graduate school, Agehara wanted to try growing them in Florida's similarly hot and humid climate. Plus, the scientist likes to eat them.
To initiate bud development, the plants need 250 to 500 hours of temperature below 50 degrees. So Agehara took four types of artichokes — Green Globe Improved, Imperial Star, Opal and Madrigal — and planted them over the winter, adding a hormone that triggers the germinating process in plants that would otherwise remain dormant. After trying different application rates, he had success this spring with the Green Globe Improved and Imperial Star varieties.
He and his team planted 800 artichoke plants in November and December at the center, a 500-acre facility that grows other research crops like tomatoes, strawberries and watermelon.
California, particularly places like Castro Valley, produces 99 percent of commercially grown artichokes in the United States, with a total crop value of around $58 million. The world's largest artichoke producer is Italy. Artichokes are not grown commercially in Florida, but beleaguered citrus and avocado farmers are eager to find the "next big thing" in Florida agriculture.
Agehara said he chose artichokes because they are a niche crop, and his goal is to find profitable crops to help the local economy. At stores like Fresh Market and Whole Foods, artichokes currently run about $4 or $5 each.
The researcher is halfway through a two-year project for which he received an $80,000 grant to amend and plant this species of thistle, harvest it and share the results.
"If you make locally grown artichokes in Florida, it can be very attractive to customers," he said. "We will plant this again."
Meanwhile, Agehara will be eating his artichokes simply: steamed or boiled, with salt, pepper and olive oil.
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