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Symbols of Spring: Sweet Peas and Artichokes

Spring has lots of wonderful garden surprises. Among them is the brief but fragrant (and colorful) appearance of sweet peas.

The plant in my yard has seen robust growth starting late last year thanks to the mild winter. The first few buds are just starting to emerge, and this marks the start of several exciting changes in my springtime diet.

It’s about the time artichokes and shelling peas start showing up regularly at my local store and farmer’s market.

The season is not lost on my family.

My kids go crazy for sweet peas and practically every room in my house gets a bud vase full of the delicate blooms. Delilah and Aidan both know this is their Grammy’s favorite spring flower too, so every visit is accompanied by a hastily assembled bouquet in a shameless attempt at scoring brownie points. 

It’s hard not to love this flower – its subtle fragrance, soft color and fragile beauty is so easy to appreciate. I also have a soft spot for shelling peas. The most common shelling pea we see in the US is ironically called an “English” pea but there are dozens of varieties that can grow here.  

This is a plant I can grow very well at home.  And since the sugars in peas convert quickly to starch, this is one of those vegetables that’s at its best the closer you are to the harvest time and place.

Peas are also an important crop for many growers because they help bridge the gap between the winter and summer harvest seasons. Peas can provide a much-needed cash crop during a time when summer crops (like tomatoes) need maintenance but are not producing income. So the next time you buy a field tomato in August, bear in mind that it was peas in the spring that helped bring that tomato to market.

About the same time we see peas, the lovely artichoke also makes an appearance. The season for artichokes will vary from year to year and is very dependent on the weather. A cold or rainy winter can slow growth and delay harvests, but usually by early April artichokes will have begun in earnest, peak in May, and finish by mid-June. 

There is a much smaller fall harvest, in late September and into October, but the spring artichoke is really the best of the year.

When selecting both peas and artichokes you should always look for firm product that is not dehydrated.

For peas it’s best to open a few pods to get a sense of how developed the peas are. Small, underdeveloped peas are good and sweet, but making a meal of them can get expensive since they are sold by the pound, and the weight of the pod will remain constant regardless of the size of the pea. You should also make sure the peas are not too big as over mature peas will be starchy and not so sweet.

The best peas should be touching in the pod but not squeezed together.  Artichokes should have tight petals and a thick stem (the heart – which to many is the jewel in the artichoke crown - is generally 1 1/2 times the diameter of the stem).

I grow both peas and artichokes in my garden – the peas for food, the artichokes for flowers. Artichokes actually bloom at the end of the season, so my sweet pea blooms and artichoke blossoms are the bookends to a glorious time of year.

Both are important, delicious and beautiful symbols of spring.