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.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture in eastern North Carolina.