Growing and Preparing Cardoons (Cynara cardunculus)

It’s the ultimate pain in the ass vegetable to prepare and I’ll probably get in big trouble in native plant circles for even mentioning it, but just last night I fried up my first successful plate of homegrown cardoons (Cynara cardunculus).

Not the most attractive blanching job, admittedly.
All ready to prepare

The cardoon is a close relative of artichoke, identical in appearance, except that the flowers are much smaller and the plant tends to get a lot bigger. Instead of eating the flowers, as with artichoke, you eat the stems. But first you’ve got to take some extra steps. When it gets around 3 feet tall you tie all the stems together and cover it in cloth, burlap or newspaper to blanch it for two to three weeks, leaving the top few inches of leaves to poke out of the covering. I once tried to eat an unblanched stem and it was bitter and tough so, in my experience, the blanching is a necessary step.

Pullin’ off the stringy bits

To prepare it you take the blanched, tender inner stems and pull off the stringy bits on the back, being careful to avoid the sharp edges (did I mention that this is a pain in the ass food?). Chop the stems into two inch strips and drop them into acidified water to prevent discoloration. Next boil the crap out of them. You might also be able to bake the crap out of them, but I have not tried this. I boiled them for 25 minutes. After boiling I fried them in a pan with garlic and olive oil and topped them with salt and Parmesan cheese. They are somewhat bland with a faint taste reminiscent of artichokes. They’d probably taste better paired with a heavy meat dish or as part of a stew. I’ve also seen recipes where they are drenched in cream and cheese.

In our Mediterranean climate cardoons are a perennial, though if you harvest them they’ll effectively be an annual. Here in Los Angeles you plant them in the winter/fall for a spring/summer harvest. The cardoon I harvested was “dry farmed” with no supplementary irrigation and planted itself. Elsewhere you would plant them a couple of weeks after the last frost and blanch them before they get too big.

When I mentioned to a native plant expert I greatly respect that I had them in my garden she read me the riot act. Cardoons are remarkably resilient and invasive. Hailing from the Mediterranean, they’ve taken over large parts of the New World. The brilliant purple flowers release thousands of tiny seeds, each with their own fibrous parachute that caries them hundreds of feet in the slightest of breezes. Charles Darwin mentions cardoon in The Voyage of the Beagle,

“In the latter country alone [Uruguay], very many (probably several hundred) square miles are covered by one mass of these prickly plants and are impenetrable by man or beast. Over the undulating plains, where these great beds occur, nothing else can now live.”

My own thoughts about “invasives” are closer to David Theodoropoulos than the nativists–best to work with invasives rather than fret about them. Homo Sapiens are the ultimate invasive species, after all, and I’ll take the cardoons over the oil spills, any day.

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  1. My half-italian neighbors up the street take some of my excess artichoke foliage and cook it like cardoon. No need to blanch it first, and not nearly as prickly. And of course the artichokes never go to seed because I eat all the buds. Maybe that would satisfy the native gardeners?

  2. I personally have concluded that a lot of what the native plant people have to say about non-native plants is patterned on what Nativists have to say about illegal immigrants: they are dirty, they break the laws, they aren’t productive, they carry disease, and they reproduce too much. IOW, the Know-Nothings want to be in charge of the environment. And the recommendations of nativists re non-native plants are similar to those of the Nativists re illegals: we need more laws to forbid the importation of these furriners, to control what is sold and planted here, and to fund cop organizations to control the behavior of “bad” people. There is no addressing of this ideological freight in the world of native plant promoters. Nor have I seen any plant nativists address the issue of WHY non-native plants come to dominate any particular system, such as human interventions like over-grazing, monoculture farming, or the destruction of ecological balance between predator and prey animals. Not to mention the bottom line, the ultimate invasive species: us. We will never put things back the way they were even if we all left and went back to Europe, Africa, etc. This is not even to touch upon the profound lack of knowledge about plants that I have encountered amongst people who rail against non-natives, such as confusing mugwort with motherwort, identifying all loosestrifes as evil invasives (even the native ones). It is fruitless to point out to plant nativists the disastrous results of humans using science to try to “fix” nature (Australia comes to mind), but a good example is found in the activities of nativists in my area, who by going into the woods to eradicate the evil invasive mustard garlic, have spread it further.

    At one time I promoted native plants in my business as well as using them in my garden, but I became so disgusted with the nativist blindness to the real causes of environmental problems and with the self-righteousness and frankly, lack of knowledge, that I diassociated myself with anything of that kind. I still grow native plants but I have concluded that nativists are not going to “save” our environment just as Nativists are not going to “save” our country. The thinking of both Nativists and nativists obscures the real issues of how we affect our environment and distorts the discussion of what we can do about it.

  3. Yeah, thanks for the low-down on this plant. It sounds like far too much of a PITA to bother with. I’ve pretty much avoided skirret and scorzonera for the same reasons, though admittedly I’m only guessing about the preparation work for those vegetables based on how they look. Looks like too much peeling for not enough food to me.

    I too take exception to the nativist attitude to plants. My question to those folks would be this: Do you eat an entirely native, local diet? Because if they don’t, then they’re almost certainly supporting the planting of non-native species *somewhere* in the world. So what give them the right to insist that their immediate area is preserved in some mythically pristine state, whilst simultaneously paying for someone else to do otherwise, elsewhere. I’ll keep my non-native apple tree, figs, tomatoes, eggplant, honey bees, and chickens in my backyard, thanks.

  4. Sounds like a culinary adventure; thanks for allowing me to have it vicariously.
    Maybe “invasive” plants are so successful b/c we’ve so completely screwed up the environment that natives CAN’T survive! Here in the Great Lakes the plant nativists are worried about phragmites, which happens to clean up high levels of nitrates in the water! I can’t wait to see what grows on the shores of the Gulf in coming years.

  5. I appreciate the instant Cardoon Class! It does seem like a PITA, but, I would enjoy going through it just to have the experience, and of course, the TASTE! There are fish here in Florida that people miss because they are not as easy to fillet as say a Grouper, (more small bones) but, a careful chewer can taste fish that have a wonderful flavor, (and are not overfished)Keep up the good work!

  6. I just wanted to add to Erik’s post that bees love, love, love cardoon flowers. We’re letting ours bloom for them, and then we’ll cut them before they go to seed so we don’t have a billion baby cardoons popping up in the yard next year.

    Also, cardoon leaves (which are huge and plentiful) make good mulch and compost.

  7. I’d considered planting these in the past. But with toddlers mucking about, I don’t really need ANOTHER pain in the butt in my yard. Hah. So thanks for your honesty.

  8. Don’t most nativists mostly object to non-native ornamentals? At least, that’s my always been my philosophy. Though I also don’t understand why you’d plant something potential detrimental that’s also a pain in the ass.

    Also, I do not at all get Mr. Roth’s immigration metaphor. What, is the cardoon in Mr. Homegrown’s garden sending back money to support baby cardoons in Mexico?

  9. I’m with Harold. I’ve seen first hand how the fight against invasive species resembles immigration policy. Trying to fend off the inevitable only benefits those who support the status quo: cops and coyotes. In the case of invasive species it’s government bureaucrats and the pesticide applicators they hire. Better to address the underlying problems. Healthy ecosystems resist invaders.

  10. Thanks for the low-down on the cardoon, and I have to say your picture w/ the blooming thistle looks an awful lot like the Italian purple artichokes I have in my yard. No worries, I might well try blanching and cooking the stalks.

    As to the native v. ‘invasive’ discussion…

    We no longer live in pristine native species-promoting conditions. Blame that on weather patterns and pollution. Blame that on irresponsible land usage and use of pesticides and herbicides that throw cycles out of whack as well as insect populations (just look at native bees, for example; it’s not just because of European honeybees that they’re in decline, because when people are clearing land for agriculture even in CA they’re generally not planting flowers to keep these pollinators around). Blame it on what you will. Not only do we no longer live in the same climate and with the same soil conditions that greeted our predecessors (who were anything but native), with changing weather patterns it is going to be a challenge finding food crops that will tolerate this and still provide reliable foodstuffs.

    I have an aunt who is a rabid nativist, but loves her bulbs from Holland. 😛

  11. If I do this now (November UK weather) to my cardoon plant, will it come back again in the Spring and do its usual thing or will this effectively kill the plant off? I have three cardoons and would love to experiment but I don’t want to sacrifice my bees happiness for a mouthful of artichoke flavoured vegetable. Having a bit of a discussion about this with a friend at the moment, so it was really great to read this post!

  12. Hi Joanna,

    I don’t know your climate well enough to say. In cold places cardoon is grown as an annual and replanted every year. Can’t say if the UK winter is cold enough to kill it off. Here in Los Angeles I’ve cut it to the ground to eat and had it spring right back from the roots. The bees certainly do love it when it blooms!

  13. Mine are five years old now, I lifted and divided one big one when it got too big, they never really seem to stop growing. Hmm, I might just go and wrap one of them up if I can figure out how to do it, it’s the light you’re trying to keep out isn’t it, but presumably you need to use something that will allow moisture to evaporate otherwise the leaves will rot…

  14. I’m here because I am excited to blanch my first cardoon. And, oh my goodness. Could we please stop talking about people like a plague? I don’t understand why people who believe in evolution care about preserving things the way they are. Isn’t that what evolution is all about? 🙂 I’m sure if you are right something beautiful will evolve to live in a toxic to us world. And if you believe God created everything, He put us here to tend the earth so we should take really good care of it, but we are not an invasive species to Him, we are precious to Him. Either way, I eagerly await a cardoon harvest!! (is anyone else having a hard time wrapping them up because they are so pretty where they are? They really add to the landscape of my yard.)

  15. Thanks for info, I wish to grow Cardoon for their flower stalks. I had one once growing at the base of a tree and this helped support the flower stem which grew over 6ft tall. The flower can be harvested and dried and becomes a great ornamental thistle. Used in floral work. Also would love to look into making cheese with use of Cardoon as a substitute for rennet. Such a great versatile plant in that way.

  16. Pingback: Goshen Commons | Where a city meets for conversation | Coats for Cardoons

  17. Pretty simplified conversation. Cardoons are awesome. Yes, they’re more work, but so is anything worth something. Native plant people have a valid concern but invasive species are all about context. Ignoring the dire consequences of spreading invasive species is selfish. The entire Colorado river is choked with tamarisk and the native species that keep the ecosystem intact, complex and resilient are gone. Why not just be responsible about it? Is LA a place it can spread? How close are you to degraded soil and feral land where invasives usually spread? Don’t let it go to seed, ever. Why laugh it off so easily in a simplified philosophy about it being better than oil spills? Seriously. That’s the same kind of attitude as the oil spillers.

  18. the concept that an invasive species is a bad thing is based on faux morality and bad science. Darwin’s entire theory, still valid today is about what species is fittest to survive in a particular environment, will thrive in that environment, and those that aren’t, wont. An invasive species is invasive precisely because it is better suited to that particular environment. Besides, after 4 billion years of natural selection, there is really no such thing as an indigenous species anyway, all species were invasive at some point in time.

  19. I love cardoons and was raised on them in North Africa.
    The best way to serve them is to boil them until tender, drain the water and saute them in butter with a little consomme and or cream
    Bon appetit

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