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Cardoon
(Cynara cardunculus)


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This vegetable, for several reasons you will soon see, is not a likely candidate for us, or anyone in these parts; but, since we did most of the homework before all became clear, we include this page anyway.

Cultivars

Cardoon plant

Our eating experience with store-bought cardoon (a relative of artichokes grown for its stem) has not been good, but there are so many descriptions of eating home-grown that are are so mouth-watering that it is a temptation. But . . . .

Two big things to know up front about cardoon: one, it is highly invasive! In some areas, it is classed a "noxious weed" (places that do such classifying--we live in one--take them very seriously). If you grow it, don't let it go to seed, or neighbors (and farmers) from miles away--and maybe some county authorities--will be mightily peeved at you. Two, many--perhaps most--kinds are covered with fine stickers or spikes that, as one too-experienced hand put it, lodge themselves into skin and are hard to detect by eye but easy to detect by pain. So one really, really wants a spineless cultivar.

Regrettably, cardoon is not much discussed by variety and only rarely even listed in catalogues as a named variety. If you want it, some to look for would be:

(One of the few pages discussing cardoon states that "Named varieties of cardoon seed may be hard to come by in the United States . . . . The best-tasting variety is the spiny 'Epineux Argenté de Plainpalais,' a Swiss variety . . . . 'Vert de Vaulx' has delicate stems and is the hardiest variety.")

Lacking any of those, do look for words like "smooth" or "spineless" in the name. Cardoons are said to divide broadly into "lunghi" and "gobbi", but those terms refer not to types of plant but rather to growing techniques ("gobbi" are bent during growth and end up curved, which assists in the blanching process).

Finally, it may well be that between cardoon's need for cool (so as not to be bitter), its sensitivity to frost, and its relatively long growing season (c. 5 months), it is ungrowable in these parts; it is almost certainly not possible as a perennial. Someday we may find out, but for sure not anytime soon.

(Though cardoon is normally treated as an annual most parts, there are reports of some specimens surviving a Michigan Zone-5 winter.)

Planting

Those who want them badly enough to grow them as an annual should grow them more or less like artichokes, to which they are closely related.


Timing

Start them as seedlings indoors. The seedlings, when first planted out, want to see about 8 to 10 days of temperatures around 50° if they are to have a good growth; hereabouts, that means planting out in mid-March or so.

Since they require a good 6 to 8 weeks indoors as seedlings before being set out, we should sow seed around mid-January.


Starting Seedlings

Sow your cardoon seeds about ¼ inch deep and ¼ inch apart in a lightly moistened soil-less growing mix. Use a good-quality starting mix, not hardware-store "potting mix": you want a soil-free medium, to be sure there are no fungal problems ("Jiffy Mix" and "Pro-Mix" are representative examples of the sort of thing wanted, and many mail-order garden-supply houses have a proprietary mix). Germinate the seed at a temperature of about 75° F.: heating pads or the like under the seedling flat or pot are an immense assist to good germination. Be sure to start more seeds than you want plants, perhaps half again as many, because you will likely have to cull them at planting-out time.

As soon after emergence as the individual seedlings can be handled, transplant them into fair-sized pots or cells--say 2 to 4 inches in size. Keep those transplants growing at temperatures as close as you can get to 65° in the day and 55° at night; the day and night temperatures can be plus or minus 5 degrees, but try to keep the day/night difference at around 10°.

When the outdoor daily highs hit the high 40s, transplant your seedlings out.


The Bed

Site your cardoon bed where the plants will get at least 6 hours of sun, as they will not develop properly without it.

Cardoons need really good soil to thrive. Before planting out your seedlings, spade the ground deeply (well-drained soil is important), and supply it with good compost or manure (and fertilize again, generously, every season). If your soil is heavy (clay), work humus or even sand well into it. Slightly acid soil is wanted for cardoons--some say even as acid as pH 6.0 (though others say 6.5).


Transplanting Out

We have seen spacing recommendations from up to six feet down to 18 inches, which makes selection problematic. The optimum will depend in part on your soil: the better it is, the bigger the plants will grow. A test planting at small spacings, especially in a deep-dug bed, seems logical, because you can just pull out some if the lot is getting wildly overcrowded. But in any event, this vegetable will eat up garden space.

Cardoons may not always grow true to type from seed (they are commonly propagated by cuttings); cull your seedlings before you transplant: look for stunted or albino types and discard them.

We want to plant cardoons out when they can get their first days at around 50° or so, but, around here anyway, that can expose them to freezes--our typical nightly lows in mid-March are skirting the freeze line--which they should not see. It thus seems wise to provide the seedlings with some early night-time frost protection for their first couple of months. Take care! Do not expose the plants, especially at first, to daytime temperatures warmer than the ambient. That means not just setting something like a Wall o'Water on the seedlings and leaving it there. One approach is to fill a number of transparent or translucent plastic soda or milk jugs with water and leave them in the sun during the day somewhere away from the cardoon seedlings, then move the jugs around the plants at night so the accumulated heat in the water softens the night-time lows for the seedlings. (Moving Walls o'Water around on a twice-daily basis would be far too tiresome.)


Growing

Treat them like artichokes. The chief difference is the need to blanch the stalks, else they become almost inedibly bitter. From the old Vilmorin vegetable guide:

[T]he stalks or ribs are blanched by tying them together and wrapping them round with straw, which is also tied up with cord, bast, etc. The plants are then earthed up, and left so for about three weeks, when the stalks or ribs will be in proper condition for use; but if left longer than this, they will be in danger of rotting.

More

Uses

Normally, it is the stems that are used, but the leaves have also been consumed since antiquity. An experienced user says of that: If used as a vegetable, the leaves must be wound together and covered with black plastic at the end of August or early September [this is in Europe] to create a hothouse effect; that makes the leaves and stems lose their greygreen colour and softens the stems.

Of the stems, the same source says that cardoon is a delicate vegetable although it requires a long boiling time--over 2 hours--or else 50 minutes in a pressure cooker. Note that only the stems (very well cleaned) are eaten, typically cut in pieces about 6 cm. [2½ inches] long.


Relevant Links

Besides any links presented above on this page, the following ought to be especially helpful:


Odds and Ends

Biology

Cardoon is a member of the highly useful Asteraceae (formerly Compositae) family, the asters, as is its very close relative the artichoke, plus lettuces, scorzonera (and salsify), chicories, and more. In some places, including parts of the U.S., cardoon is so successful at escaping into the wild that it is legally listed as a "noxious weed".


History

Cardoon is believed to have been cultivated for thousands of years in the central and western Mediterranean regions of Europe. Dioscorides refers to its cultivation on a large scale near Great Carthage, and Pliny speaks of its medicinal virtues. Dodoens, in his History of Plants (1559), described it as much more spinescent than the "Articoca" (artichoke) of Italy and less used as food.


Envoi

Mrs. M. Grieve's manual A Modern Herbal, published in 1931, said of cardoon "It requires so much room that it is little grown in small gardens, and as a crop can hardly pay for the enormous extent of ground that it claims."

Cardoon is sometimes called "Texas celery"; make of that what you will.


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