Cynara cardunculus (or What to do with a cardoon)

Cardoon combos in mid-SeptemberWe planted a lot of cardoons this year. A lot. And now that the season is done, Julie (who doesn’t love giant horsey things in the garden – especially when they’re everywhere flopping big leaves on delicate things – but who generously let us plant them all in the first place) has been asking us, “When are you going to cut them back?, Can you cut them back today?, How about now?, Are you going to dig them up?, Maybe you should dig them up.” So yesterday when they looked frost-flat I did a little research to find out what to do to them for the winter (Gail and I would like *some* to come back…) and I learned all sorts of new things about cardoons. To give credit where credit is due, most of what I learned I found on this site.

melted cardoons

Cardoons are winter hardy perennials to about zone 7b but with protection might come back into the zone 6’s (Gail had one come back a few years ago). They are best planted by seed and the first year they establish their tap root, grow gorgeous gray and spiny foliage (some might call it horsey) and the second year they become even more gigantic (they can reach 7′) and they flower. The flowers are thistle-ish, artichoke-like wildlife magnets – birds and bees, etc reportedly can’t get enough of them. But once they flower, the foliage goes downhill for at least a month before sending up new leaves from the base (I suspect that happens more reliably in long growing seasons.)

I have all sorts of appreciation for their ornamental function in the garden but had no idea about the culinary uses and frankly the spiny stalks are about as appealing to me to eat as a fully clothed porcupine. I found out that cooking them for supper is more complicated than just breaking off a stalk and sauteing it up. They must be blanched first. A couple of weeks before the first frost you tie them up in a wheatsheaf bundle and wrap them in burlap or cardboard so just the top feathers stick out. Restricting photosynthesis evidently sweetens the stems and cooked up, they’ll taste like artichoke heart. The entire plant is harvested after the 2-3 weeks of blanching by cutting the base just below soil level. Cook prep is a little high maintenance too – you must remove the spines (duh!), cut the stalks into sections and submerge them in “acidulated water”. That was another learn-something-new-today thing for me – acidulated water is, well, just what it sounds like – lemon water. And that keeps them from turning ugly oxidized colors before cooking. My interest flagged at the recipes because I’m not a cook but if you are, there’s probably all sorts of ways to make tasty things (that I would love to eat) from this most outstanding (horsey?) ornamental vegetable! Have you ever eaten cardoon? Is it worth the wait and the work?

After all the reading up, I’m still not ready to put them to bed for the winter. The flattened leaves popped back up as the temperatures rose and I think they’re still too architecturally pretty to behead. When the leaves really go to mush, we’ll cut them off, throw a little mulch around our favorites and hope for the best!

Cardoon - Cynara cardunculus - up close and personal

11 thoughts on “Cynara cardunculus (or What to do with a cardoon)

  1. Well, if I had to cook it because there was nothing else, I guess I would but it sounds like a lot of trouble! They are pretty and your research very informative. They are so gray/white aren’t they! Fifty mile per hour plants!!! (You can’t help but notice them even at that speed!)

  2. Max, A lot of the advice you were given mentioned blanching but it must be a cooking process and not a wrap-it-in-burlap garden process? And now I’m wicked curious about thistle cheese – I’ve never noticed udders on thistles – I’ll have to look again…
    Thanks for the Roger Raiche link too -I did like it! Some of the meticulously maintained estate gardens that he was “enthralled” with might have been tended by my own great-grandfather. Maybe. Could have been. Possibly.

    Layanee, I would try it if someone else wanted to go to all the trouble! I love your “50mph” description – perfect!

  3. Oooh… that last picture captured something I really love: how the late fall slanting light makes silver-blue leaves glow with a fresh green color. I see that on my brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ but haven’t been able to capture it as beautifully as you have!

    I had been worried about planting cardoons because they supposedly self-seed like crazy. But if they’re not hardy here in zone 6 and I can enjoy the silvery foliage for a year… hmmm… :)

  4. Thanks for showing pics of cardoons – they remind me of Italy. Which also reminds me of 1 of the worst tasting liquors I’ve ever sampled – Cynara, a nasty, bright red drink made from, you guessed it, cardoon.

  5. Kim, You of all people need cardoons because they’re one of your colors! I read a lot too about the self-seeding problem but I can’t imagine it would be a big deal for us zone 6ers. If we’re lucky enough to get a couple to winter over and flower, we could forfeit the flowers (birds and bees would be sorry to see them go but the foliage would stay prettier) or if we did let them flower and go to seed, do you think the seedlings would be hard to pick out of a line-up? I don’t!

    Mr. McG’s Daughter, I’m having as hard a time imagining a cardoon liquor as a thistle cheese! Bright red? Really?!

  6. 1. Italians drink all kinds of crazy things, which they call amari, that scare the hell out of normal people. I am not normal, and I actually like many of these drinks, but not Cynar, which is actually made from artichokes and tastes terrifying. It is not red; I think you’re confusing it with Campari.

    2. One of the enzymes in the thistle family denatures milk proteins, which makes them stick to each other, coagulating the milk. This might sound weird, but the alternative (used to make probably every cheese you’ve ever eaten) is rennet, which is made from calves’ stomachs.

    3. In cooking, blanching is the same thing as parboiling — boiling for a few minutes before you finish it some other way that normally involves fat. Garden blanching is as you describe, and is commonly done to celery and leeks, as well as a many bitter greens (endive being the most obvious).

  7. Thanks for the cardoon primer, Kris! Back when I’d just started gardening here in mid-Zone 6, I planted a cardoon in a constantly damp spot (not knowing that was “wrong”) and darn if that thing didn’t live for at least eight years with no winter protection. Since I started this garden, I’ve been trying to grow it again, planting it in well-drained spots because I’d read that they don’t like winter wet. Finally got one to flower last year, let the seeds drop, and ended up with dozens of seedlings. You’re right: It’s quite easy to tell them apart from other seedlings. I let a few stay where they’d put themselves, and they’ve performed far better than those I’ve tried to place where I want them. Isn’t that always the way?

  8. Max, 1. When in Rome… (kind of glad I’m not in Rome at least re liquor) 2. Ignorance was bliss (wonder where I can find thistle cheese?) 3. That’s what I thought! I bet blanching that way would probably do nothing to mitigate the bitterness of un-blanched the other way cardoons though.

    Nan, Sounds like a damp spot wasn’t “wrong” at all! I think I read that they prefer evenly moist to dry – not what I’d guess by the looks of them. And probably like most tap-rooted things they resent being moved.,,

  9. In reply to Max – I had Cynara once, in 1984! I kept the bottle – the label was red. (I knew there was red there somewhere.) I wish I had taken a picture of my friends’ faces after tasting that stuff. On our honeymoon 10 years ago, I took a pic of my husband with the red, equally nasty Campari. I’m old, I’m confused…. but I can never forget how awful Cynara is!

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