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How to Grow Cardoons

Perennial Cardoon plants with purple thistle flowers

How to grow Cardoons – article first published in Grow Your Own Magazine May 2015

Cardoons are fantastic edible, ornamental and bee friendly plants. I’m obsessed with resurrecting long forgotten varieties and started growing Cardoons 6 years ago after discovering they were stars of the vegetable garden in Britain right up to Victorian times. I thought it was time for these architectural edimentals to make a re-appearance.

Cardoons are a delicacy eaten widely in Italy and France but very rarely in this country. I love to grow some of the Italian varieties such as Distell Gobbi Di Nizza and Bianco Avorio which produce very impressive and tasty specimens with the added bonus of a long sowing window from March right through to June. In appearance they share many characteristics with their close cousin the Globe Artichoke, having attractive green leaves with a dusting of silvery grey. Cardoons are grown for their edible creamy stems, ridged like celery stalks rather than their flower buds. Their leaves can reach 3ft or more in length and in summer they throw up a profusion of vivid purple thistle flowers that tower above head height.

How to grow Cardoons

You can start Cardoons off one seed to a single pot indoors from as early as February or sow direct outside from April to June once the soil has warmed up. They need a final spacing of about 75-90cm and need to be kept well watered for the first few months. Mediterranean in heritage, they a love a sunny site in well drained soil, but do consider their mature size when planting and the shade they create. Being perennials they seem to withstand all that nature can throw at them and in my experience suffer few pests. They are also remarkably hardy and once established return year after year without any problem.
To encourage good stems for eating it is good practice to remove the flower heads as they appear. What I tend to do is grow some plants for eating and some plants for the bees, allowing some to continue to flower well into the autumn. This way you get to see the beauty of the plants in their full glory as well as have some for harvesting in winter.

I’m a massive fan of plants that keep on giving and can feed you year after year with just a small amount of attention. Having some perennial vegetables mixed in with your annual plantings gives you harvests at different times and Cardoons are ready when there is not much to pick in the vegetable garden.

In October through to mid November you need to blanch the Cardoons by wrapping layers of cardboard or sacking around the stems and tying it up with string leaving the fronds of leaves poking out of the top. This helps to make the stems tender and removes the bitterness before harvesting. 3-4 weeks of blanching is usually enough and then you can cut individual stems for eating or slice the whole plant at its base like a monster head of celery leaving the root to re-sprout in the spring.

Perhaps Cardoons fell out of favour because they take a little bit of preparation in the kitchen. Taste the delicious smokey, earthy artichoke-yness of Cardoons on a cold winter’s night and you will become an instant convert! Almost all Cardoon dishes start of with removing the leaves from the stems, peeling off any stringy bits from the ridged outer side and then placing in water with a dash of vinegar or squeeze of lemon juice. This stops the stems from turning brown and helps to sweeten the flavour. Cut into batons, simmer in a pan of water until tender and your Cardoons are then ready to use in a variety of ways. One of my favourite dishes is a bubbling Cardoon and Stilton gratin but they are also superb fried with crispy coatings.

Globe Artichoke flower head
An exquisite Globe Artichoke flower, a close cousin of the Cardoon. Globe Artichokes were originally bred from wild cardoons.
vivid purple thistle flower with bees
Bees absolutely love Cardoon flowers