by Master Gardener Bob Weis
So, what do you call a vegetable that looks like an artichoke, has a beautiful artichoke-like flower and, yet, it’s eaten like a celery stalk? It’s a cardoon.
Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus), a native of the Mediterranean, is a member of the Asteraceae family. It looks like an artichoke because it is the naturally occurring form of the cultivated globe artichoke (C. cardunculus var. scolymus). If properly cultivated and prepared, its stalk has a taste somewhere between celery and artichoke.
Cardoon is frost sensitive, and it needs lots of space. According to the Sonoma County Master Gardener Vegetable Planting Summary, cardoon can be transplanted May through September. It is a stout herbaceous perennial that can get as tall as five feet and as wide as 4 feet. For this reason, some food gardeners grow it as an annual whose smaller size fits better in many residential gardens. With its tall silver-grey toothy leaves, this plant can make a bold statement in your yard, especially when it is in bloom.
Cardoon grows on heavily spined leaves. An easier to handle variety is ‘Porto Spineless.’ The pretty violet colored flower, much like our artichoke, makes a nice dried arrangement. As a Mediterranean native, it enjoys full sun with a medium amount of water in well-drained soil. If growing it as an edible, take care to give it even water for the best taste. It is a hardy grower and is considered a weed in some parts of California.
The stalks are harvested in winter and spring before the plant flowers. One time-consuming option to produce more tender stalks is to “blanch” the stems. This can be accomplished by loosely tying the stalks with twine and wrapping them in black and white newspaper, brown paper, straw or burlap 30 days before harvesting. The plant is deer resistant which becomes apparent after one handles the spiny stalks. Cardoon easily self-seeds, so it must be dead-headed to control. If you live in a colder microclimate and are growing it as a perennial, cover it with straw or leaves to keep the stump from heavy frost after you harvest it in late fall or early winter.
Cardoon is a feature of North African foods, such as its use in the tagine dishes of Morocco, as well as Greek, Italian and Persian cuisines. Although it is mainly the stalk that is eaten, the flower bud (“choke”) is also edible when small. The first step in preparation is to pare the stalks with a vegetable peeler. Do this soon after harvest while the stalks are still firm, because, as someone said, this is “celery with armor.” After the stalks are peeled, they are put in a lemon juice liquid to keep them from turning brown. Next they are boiled for 30 minutes or more to tenderize.