Cardoons (Cynara cardunculus) are edible thistles from the sunflower family.
Eaten the same way as celery, or cooked into stews and soups, cardoons are a maintenance-free perennial. The familiar, grocery store variety of artichoke is a type of cardoon, but there are differences.
Native to the dry climate of Morocco, cardoons are unfazed by drought, making them an easy choice in California and other Mediterranean climates. Also known as artichoke thistles, cardoons produce magnificent pinkish-purple spiked flowers from April through July, but it is the stems that are eaten.
Wild cardoons are sturdy herbaceous perennials that grow 3 to 5 feet tall, with deeply lobed, greenish-grey leaves that can be spiny, hairy, or downy (a condition called tomentose). The fleshy taproot is very good at finding water. And pollinators love the big, showy flowers!
Cardoons are grown for two different crops, using different cultivars. The familiar globe artichoke (Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus) is grown for its large edible flower buds. The plant referred to as ‘cardoon’ (C. cardunculus var. altilis) is grown, instead, for its edible leaf stems. Since the wild ancestor to cardoons featured painful spines on those stems, spineless cultivars have been developed. Our domesticated artichokes and cardoons are so closely related that they can cross-pollinate, so they should be grown a fair distance from one another.
How cardoons grow
Cardoons need a long, cool growing season, making them an excellent winter crop in the Bay Area. Seeds are started late fall to mid-winter and they transplant easily. These plants grow slowly, at first, but don’t let them fool you. Cardoons can get quite large, averaging 3 feet in all directions. Plants need full sunlight, moderate amounts of water, and good drainage. Watering regularly improves the flavor of cardoon stems. They are frost sensitive, so some protection may be needed in the form of mounded straw or dry leaves around the base of the plant during winter. The plants often die back to ground level after flowering, but they will come back, year after year, adding structure and color in winter, and a spectacular show in spring and early summer.
Only the tender, inner stalks are eaten. These are harvested before the plant goes to flower. Much like celery, these stalks are wrapped in fabric, paper, or straw during the 30 days of growth. This etiolation, or bleaching, keeps the stems white and tender. Traditionally, the stalks were buried under a mound of soil as the plant grew, but that just sounds like too much work. The stalks are then peeled and treated with a little lemon juice, to prevent browning. Simmer for 30 minutes or so and add to any number of Moroccan, African, Greek, Italian, or Persian dishes. In addition, cardoon seeds contain a high quality oil, similar to sunflower oil and safflower oil.
Cardoon pests and diseases
Like its close cousin, the artichoke, cardoons are vulnerable to feeding by slugs and snails, and the artichoke plume moth. They are also susceptible to the viral disease artichoke curly dwarf. Other than that, they are relatively indestructible.
An invasive weed
Cardoons are so hardy, and they self-seed so readily, that they are categorized as a Most Invasive Wildland Pest Plant by the Invasive Species Compendium. What this means to you, as a home gardener, is that it is very important that mature flowers are deadheaded before seeds can spread. This will protect the environment and prevent your yard from filling up with pokey thistle plants. Cardoons grow and spread so readily that some researchers are studying them as a source of biofuel and bioplastics materials.
Invasive weed or delicious vegetable, cardoons have been part of the human diet since ancient times, only falling out of public favor over the last 100 years.
As easy as it is to grow, perhaps it is time for a cardoon in your foodscape!
Artichokes are a ritualistic food that require patience, good conversation, and a nice glass of white wine to be truly appreciated.
Modern artichokes (Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus) have evolved from the cardoon, a plant still grown in Spain and Portugal as a vegetable for its stalks and immature buds, and as a source of plant-based rennet for cheese making. Artichokes found in grocery stores today tend to be larger and tougher than is ideal. Gardeners can enjoy a more tender and flavorful experience by growing these prehistoric-looking members of the sunflower (Asteraceae) family themselves. As a health benefit, artichokes contain more antioxidants than most other vegetables.
Artichoke buds & flowers
The artichokes we eat are actually spiny, immature flower buds. Each artichoke that we buy or harvest is made up of a cluster, or inflorescence, of hundreds of smaller flowers, protected by modified leaves called bracts. Once these flowers bloom, the meaty bracts and the base, or heart, are too tough to eat. The lovely purple flowers are nice to look at, however.
Do you have space for artichokes?
Artichokes can be grown practically anywhere, but it is a large plant, averaging 4 to 6 feet across, so be sure to give it room to grow. They prefer cool, moist summers (or relatively shady spots) and mild winters. The majority of the commercial crop is grown in the central, coastal areas of California. While most artichokes are grown as annuals, the plants can actually be grown as perennials, producing edible buds for 4 or 5 years. Under the right conditions, you may be able to harvest as many as 30 artichokes per plant per year. To get the most out of your artichoke plants, it is important to provide light soil (add compost!), water in summer and improve drainage for winter.
Artichokes & temperature
Timing is critical when starting artichokes from seed and when selecting varieties. The heirloom varieties (‘Violetta Precoce’, ‘Green Globe’, or ‘Romanesco’) are very temperature sensitive and will not grow well in northern regions. ‘Opera’ and ‘Imperial Star’ are better choices for colder areas. ‘Green Globe’ and ‘Imperial Star’ perform the best in Santa Clara County.
Artichoke varieties & propagation
Artichokes are either green or purple. Traditionally, artichokes are a warm weather crop that can be propagated vegetatively or by planting seeds. Varieties that perform better through vegetative propagation include Italy’s large purple Romanesco, Spain’s medium green ‘Blanca de Tudela’, and Peru’s spend ‘Spinoso e Inguano’. Vegetative propagation refers to division and root cuttings. Division means separating the crown and roots that many herbaceous perennials produce on their own as a means of asexual reproduction and planting each separately. Root cuttings can be taken from established plants and placed in a favorable growth medium (moist soil) and allowed to create a new stem and become a complex, independent plant.
How to grow artichokes from seed
Many varieties of artichoke perform well when grown from seed, but it may take a period of vernalization before flowering begins. Green ‘Harmony’ or ‘Symphony’ and purple ‘Opal’, ‘Concerto’ or ‘Tempo’ can all be grown from seed. Since artichokes have deep taproots, they are not well suited to container gardening. Seedlings should be handled very carefully when transplanting. It is easiest to simply plant them in the ground where you want them to give the taproot the freedom to grow deeply, without interruption. Artichoke seeds should be sown 1/4 to 1/2 inch deep at a time when temperatures are expected to be in the 70 - 75º range for a few weeks.
Artichokes are heavy feeders. Using a side dressing (adding fertilizer next to plants, where it is watered into the soil around the roots, rather than digging it in), each mature plant will need 1/10 of a pound of nitrogen at the beginning of the growing season. Plants will also benefit from 1 cup of ammonium sulfate and 2/3 cup of ammonium nitrate during the harvest season. If you are like me and prefer a more natural approach, simply keep mulching the area around each plant with aged compost.
Artichoke pests & diseases
Aphids and slugs are an artichoke’s most common pests. At the end of each growing season, many pests can be thwarted by cutting the stems to ground level and covering with mulch. Artichoke plume moths can be a problem in perennial beds. Artichoke curly dwarf is a viral disease that causes stunting and dark, necrotic (dead) spots. To avoid this problem, use only disease-free stock. Botrytis is a fungal disease that occurs after extended periods of warm, wet weather.
Harvest your artichokes when they are about the size of an apple for the best flavor and tenderness.
A funny side note about artichokes: the fleshy leaves contain a chemical, called cynarine, that inhibits certain taste receptors, making water and other things taste sweeter!
Spring is the time of year when it is common to see a white powder appear on the leaves of cucumber, melon and other cucurbits. You may also see it on tomatoes, roses, snapdragons, chrysanthemums, peas, artichoke, beets, grapes and practically everything else. This bane of gardeners is called powdery mildew.
What starts as a small white spot, powdery mildew expands to engulf an entire leaf as the nutrient-sucking fungi bleed the life from your garden. It can be found on either side of a leaf and sometimes on stems.
Powdery mildew is a fungus. It is caused by different types of fungi (e.g., Erysiphe spp., Sphaerotheca spp.), depending on which plant is affected. Contrary to common belief, moisture and humidity are not needed for these fungal beasties to appear.
Powdery mildew fungi simply need living plant tissue to survive and thrive. To make matters worse, their spores are carried on the wind, so the battle never ends. The reason powdery mildew seems to disappear in the heat of summer is that these microorganisms prefer shade and temperatures between 60° to 80°F. Our California summers are simply too hot for the spores to reproduce. Instead, they remain dormant until conditions improve.
The white powder seen on leaves is actually thin layers of fungal tissue (mycelium). Other symptoms of powdery mildew include:
Not only does powdery mildew cause leaf loss, it can also weaken a plant. This lowers production and increases susceptibility to other pests and diseases, such as Citrus Blast. Leaf drop can also lead to sunburn damage.
Prevention and vigilance are the best ways to counteract powdery mildew. These tips can help, but nothing will eliminate powdery mildew in the garden:
Now, some people recommend spraying plants with a baking soda and water spray. I have had mixed results, but other people swear by it.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!