A good Thistle


Don’t be turned off by the word thistle. I don’t think there is a more interesting perennial for your garden than the Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus). A veterinarian friend of mine has beautiful specimens in her yard. She gave me some seeds which are growing in our school greenhouses. I can’t wait until next season to watch them mature.

Cardoon is also a triple treat. It is a well-known leafstalk vegetable from the Mediterranean region. This thistle is closely related to the artichoke. Various recipes of stalks are traditional dishes for Christmas Eve festivities in Italy, Spain, Sardinia, Sicily, and France.

These stalks, properly called petioles, have a sweet nutty flavor. Unlike the artichoke, the flower globes are not the treat. They aren’t poisonous, but they’re too fibrous to be of use. Enjoy their beauty.

Gorgeous large purple flowers form at the tips of long stems. Plants bloom for a long time and can be real traffic stoppers. They also make great cut flowers. That’s the third course. Bees and butterflies love them too, and deer don’t like them at all.

Adapted to warm arid climates, this tall perennial tolerates drought very well. Plant it where the soil is well drained. It performs better in full sun, but it also handles some shade.

Cardoon is hardy to zone 7 and has large, prickly, almost dagger-shaped gray-green arching leaves that spiral around the stem. Early in the season, foliage provides interest. Later, the flowers steal the show. Plants are four to five feet tall and vase-shaped.

If you wish to eat this gorgeous plant I have a few pointers. Basal leaf stalks need to be blanched before they are harvested. This is done by tying each plant into a bundle, wrapping the bundles with straw, and mounding soil or mulch around the plant for about a month. This shields them from light and tenderizes them. It also removes bitterness. I blanch celery in a similar manner for the same reason.

Cardoons are usually harvested during winter months and often treated as annuals if they are grown for culinary purposes. Tender leaves and stalks can be cooked or eaten fresh in salads. Use the leaf stalks like celery in soups and stews or stir-fry them with snow peas, Vidalia onions and sweet peppers.

I suggest thinning your stand in the fall. Leave some to enjoy the following year. That also gives existing plants room to spread.

Those interested in losing weight might want to consider adding this vegetable to their list. Leaf stalks are high in antioxidants and B vitamins. Cardoon is also rich in minerals like copper, calcium, potassium, iron, manganese, and phosphorus.

Cardoon has only two major negatives. First, it is large, dominating and will crowd out smaller less aggressive plants. It also is a prolific seed producer and will volunteer profusely. Seeds can remain viable for seven years, which is good if you want to save some for the future. It is not so good if birds spread seeds to areas you don’t want them to grow.

Healthy stand of cardoons in early January

Healthy stand of cardoons in early January

Close-up of leaf stalks (petioles)

Close-up of leaf stalks (petioles)

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture in eastern North Carolina.

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About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I now teach agriculture to high school students at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, NC. My wife teaches with me and we make a great team. I also write a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com) and frequently publish articles in several other newspapers in northeastern North Carolina. I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that I plan to publish eventually. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone, a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. Never Alone is now available in paperback, Kindle and Nook. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death. In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books.
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8 Responses to A good Thistle

  1. shyrewelch says:

    Looks like it’s ashy, or has poison ivy.

  2. Before reading, I thought this would be about some poisonous or aggravating plant that could be found in your yard or woods, but now I realize that it has some special properties for food, and holidays. They are no only enjoyed by us, but also bees and butterfly’s too.

  3. Morgan Murray says:

    When I read the title to this article I figured that the plant would be some kind of thorny bush but it’s not. This plant known as the Cardoon produces stalks that are a great vegetable for many traditional dishes. I think it’s cool that these vegetables can help you loose weight. This is because these leaf stalks are high in antioxidants and B vitamins. These plants are also rich in minerals like copper, calcium, potassium, iron, manganese, and phosphorus.

  4. Sam DeLaVergne says:

    The thistle is related to the artichoke. i wouldn’t think that people would actually use this in recipes just by looking at it. and i wouldn’t have thought that purple flowers come out at the ends of the plant.

  5. I think its cool that a thistle is also a type of vegetable. Even though it has a nutty flavor, I don’t think I could see myself trying one.

  6. ashleychory says:

    I thought that the plant would be some kind of thorny bush but it’s not. This plant known as the Cardoon produces stalks that are a great vegetable for many traditional dishes. I think it’s good that these vegetables can help you loose weight. This is because these leaf stalks are high in antioxidants and B vitamins. These plants are also rich in minerals like copper, calcium, potassium, iron, manganese, and phosphorus.

  7. This plant known as the Cardoon produces stalks that are a great vegetable for many traditional dishes

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