Captivating Cardoons

From its showy appearance in the garden to its delicate flavor in the kitchen, this bold and beautiful plant has plenty to offer.

Photo by Adobe Stock/L.Bouvier

When it comes to plants that make a statement, few compare with cardoon. A stately ornamental edible topped with an otherworldly looking thistle, cardoon (Cynara cardunculus) is a beauty to behold. It’s a close cousin to the artichoke (C. scolymus), with sprawling, spiky foliage that gives way to a tall, edible stalk topped with a striking, globe-shaped purple flower.

Its violet flower and jagged, silvery foliage earned cardoon the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit from the U.K. Some would argue that its blossom is better left to the bees, because harvesting the stalk would ruin its beauty. Reaching a regal 5 to 6 feet tall, cardoon makes an excellent gateway to an herb or vegetable garden, or a backdrop for lower-growing grasses and perennials.

Cardoon is so glorious in full bloom that its culinary value can easily be overlooked. Its unusual visual appeal may tempt us to leave it at that, but doing so deprives us of an incredible old-world taste. Though cardoon’s savory flavor remains a curiosity in the U.S., we’re gradually beginning to appreciate what Mediterranean chefs have long known: Beneath its beautiful crown, the straight and narrow cardoon stalk is a prized culinary treat.

A Prickly Past

Cardoons and artichokes are members of the Asteraceae family, and share the same ancient DNA. Both bear the characteristic prickly flower bud, and, like most thistles, are eminently edible. Wild cardoon is the probable progenitor of both species. It originated in the Mediterranean basin, likely in Sicily or North Africa. There’s little documentation regarding the cultivation of cardoon, but we know that it occurred later than the domestication of the globe artichoke.

Pliny the Elder mentioned two types of edible thistles in his writings, commonly believed to be cardoon and artichoke. He heralded the plants’ health benefits, from curing digestive ailments to reversing baldness. We can deduce from his writings and other similar records that early Romans domesticated globe artichokes around the 1st century A.D. They preferred smooth, thick artichoke buds, and selected crops based on those characteristics.

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