A garden aristocratic vegetable
A highly unusual vegetable for the adventurous gardener, the cardoon is a large, handsome plant which yields delicious stems after blanching.
If you want a decorative and interesting plant to grow in your garden, try cardoons. These very attractive thistle-like plants resemble their close relative the globe artichoke, but they are much hardier, and also prettier. Although they are often grown at the back of the flower garden solely for their appearance, this is a pity, as the blanched stems are quite delicious. Because they take up a relatively large amount of space for the crop yielded, and because they require blanching, cardoons are very rarely grown commercially. It is much more popular as a vegetable in Mediterranean countries, and is often seen there growing in gardens. If you have room for it, it is well worth trying either in the vegetable or the flower garden; the large ornamental foliage, silver grey in colour, is most attractive.
A native of southern Europe, the cardoon (Cynara cardunculus) is a hardy herbaceous perennial, although it is usually grown as an annual. The generic name, Cynara, comes from kynon, the greek word for dog, as the plant produces numerous spines which look rather like dogs’ teeth. It is usually the stems which are eaten, and these must be blanched like celery. However, the flower buds can also be cut and cooked, making this a doubly good choice for the gourmet gardener.
To grow cardoons, choose a site in your garden which gets plenty of sunshine and warmth. Theshould be rich and moisture-retentive; if your soil is dry, grow your cardoons in trenches.
Cardoons are grown from seed, sown in mid- to late spring, or you can raise young plants from seed sown in early spring in a heated greenhouse or propagator. If the ground is cold, you should sow the seeds in pots under glass. Fill 7.5 cm (3”) pots with seed, and sow three seeds in each one. Thin to the strongest seedling when they are large enough to handle, and pot them on into 12.5 cm (5”) pots, if necessary. Plant the young cardoons in their permanent positions when the ground has warmed up at the end of late spring, spacing them 45 cm (1-½) apart.
If you decide to sow the seed outdoors, wait until late spring, and be sure the soil is quite warm. Prepare trenches 30 cm (1’) deep and 45 cm (1-½’) wide, as for celery. Add a 7.5 cm (3”) deep layer of well-rotted manure or garden compost mixed with the soil, and allow it to settle in the bottom of the trench. There should be a hollow for retaining water. The trench method is the best way of ensuring a good cardoon crop, unless you are sure your soil is quite heavy and wet.
Sow the seed in the trench in groups of three or four seeds placed at 45 cm (1-1/2’) intervals. They should be about 2.5 cm (1”) deep. Unfortunately, mice and other small animals have a liking for cardoon seed, so place an inverted flowerpot over each group of seeds. Remove the flowerpots as soon as the seeds sprout, and thin to the strongest seedling when the plants are about 5 cm (2”) high.
This method requires no earthing-up, but it is quite tedious to get the straw in the correct position.
If you want cardoons in winter, when other vegetables are scarce, you can leave the plants to grow, covered with a mulch of bracken or straw at night if the weather becomes frosty. Then dig up the plants, with as much soil as possible adhering to the roots, tie up the leaves for blanching and move them to a shed, cellar or other storage room. If this room is not completely dark, wrap the leaves with black polythene or brown paper as before and heap soil, sand or peat over the roots to keep them moist. The cardoons should remain in good condition for several weeks, and you will have blanched stems for cooking when you want them.
To cook the cardoon stems, tie them together in bunches and boil them like asparagus, serving them with a cheese sauce. They can also be eaten raw with savoury dips. If your plants produce flowering stems when immature, the flower buds, which are usually cut in autumn, can be cooked whole, like globe artichokes, to which they are somewhat similar in flavour.