Heirloom Artichoke Varieties and Cardoons

Growing artichokes and cardoons, the brief history of their heirloom varieties and why we go wild for these vegetables that surprisingly host little nutrition.

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Heirloom Vegetable Gardening by William Woys Weaver is the culmination of some thirty years of first-hand knowledge of growing, tasting and cooking with heirloom vegetables.  A staunch supporter of organic gardening techniques, Will Weaver has grown every one of the featured 280 varieties of vegetables, and he walks the novice gardener through the basics of planting, growing and seed saving. Sprinkled throughout the gardening advice are old-fashioned recipes — such as Parsnip Cake, Artichoke Pie and Pepper Wine — that highlight the flavor of these vegetables. The following excerpt on artichoke varieties was taken from chapter 4, “Artichokes and Cardoons.”

To locate mail order companies that carry these heirloom artichoke varieties, use our Custom Seed and Plant Finder. Check out our collection of articles on growing and harvesting heirloom vegetables in Gardening With Heirloom Vegetables.

A Brief History of Artichokes and Cardoons

“It is good for man to eat thistles, and to remember that he is an ass. But the artichoke is the best of thistles, and the man who enjoys it has the satisfaction of feeling that he is an ass of taste.”Kettner’s Book of the Table (1877, 42) could not have put it more succinctly, for the artichoke is indeed a noble weed, an epicure’s morsel, and alas, a nutritional empty box. Yet the greatest agony of the artichoke is not its thorniness–which it has in abundance–but that it inflicts upon the palate the desire to eat many, and not one is a match for wine. There is no more effective way to assassinate a great wine than to serve it with artichokes. While the Jerusalem artichoke may slide down the gullet on a silken Vaucluse and later take its revenge in the gut, the artichoke takes its revenge in the mouth, for its chemistry deadens the palate, turning great wines to must. I cannot claim that artichokes are easy to grow, not in most parts of the United States at least, and I cannot say that they are particularly productive, for one good bud per plant is about all one can expect. Yet we grow them. We pamper them. And they reward us now and then with a meal.

Fearing Burr listed fourteen varieties of artichokes and thirteen varieties of cardoons in his Field and Garden Vegetables of America (1865, 139-43). It was a good thing he could read French; he pinched that list from the 1856 edition of the Vilmorin Description des plantes potagères. A glance through Shaker seed lists of the period will reveal few references to artichokes, a more honest gauge of what middle America was actually growing as opposed to a wish list of horticultural exotics. John Russell, owner of the New England Farmer Seed Store in Boston, listed only the Green Globe in 1828, but this was without question a superior variety. Alexander Watson, in his American Home Garden (1859, 114-15) was a little more practical than Fearing Burr, for he listed only two varieties, a purple artichoke and a green one. These were the heirlooms that Americans knew; indeed, the green one had been cultivated here since the late 1600s, but only in the gardens of the gentry.

Globe Artichoke

Cynara scolymus

Of all the heirloom varieties, the globe artichoke is by far the easiest to cultivate and the one variety that appears most often in our old garden books. In an article entitled “Tried Varieties of Vegetables” in the American Garden (1889, 10:57), it was the globe artichoke that was recommended most highly for its consistency. For this reason I put it above the others, and as I grow it myself, I can verity that it will submit to far more abuse than more tender sorts, particularly the purple Sicilian, a show-stopping purple-headed variety that I also cultivate. Admittedly, the showy purple Sicilian is also a challenge and would not be possible without the benefit of a greenhouse.

Robert Buist’s Family Kitchen Gardener (1847, 19-20) explained the differences between the two historical varieties, the globe artichoke and the green artichoke. The first had a purplish tint to its head, which was round or ball-like. The scales (bracts) of this variety turned in at the top. It was preferred both for its more abundant edible parts and for its flavor. Today, it is no longer one distinct variety but represents a whole group of subvarieties that have been developed from it. For example, the strain that I grow is known in France as Grande Beurre. The green artichoke, known in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as the French artichoke, possessed open scales and was far more prolific in producing buds. It was also hardier and thus better adapted to cultivation in cold climates. It was this latter variety, with a “perfumed taste,” that was raised by William Penn at Pennsbury in the late 1600s and by other colonial American gentry.

The green globe artichoke, often available in seed shops today, is a nineteenth-century cross of the two earlier types, the object being to combine the benefits of both. I do not think that the hardiness is any more improved over the old green variety, but then, I am not raising artichokes in a climate that they particularly like; as Robert Buist has pointed out, north of Virginia artichokes require a good deal of protection if they are left in the open ground over the winter. If the root freezes, the plant dies. I have mulched my plants heavily, only to lose them in January. I now resort to raising them in pots, which are moved to my greenhouse once the weather turns cold. However, it is also possible to dig up the roots after frost and store them over the winter like dahlia tubers. This technique might work for gardeners in New England.

Growing Artichokes

Artichoke seed should be started indoors in the early spring and the seedlings transplanted to pots, then moved to the garden after all threat of frost has passed. The plants should be set out on hills four feet apart with one or two plants per hill. The artichoke produces huge silvery gray leaves that are quite striking as garden ornaments in their own right, but they cannot be crowded. Artichokes need good air circulation during humid weather, otherwise they will develop mildews, molds, and other fungus diseases.

Do not expect an artichoke crop the first year, for it is usually the second-year plants that begin to produce. They will yield crops for five to seven years, but regardless, new beds should be started every year. When the plants send up flower heads, only one or two buds should be left on the stem in order to increase their size. These are harvested right before the flower head opens to bloom. Artichokes that bloom will produce seed, but the seed is not usually true. Not only do artichoke varieties cross with one another, artichokes also cross with cardoons. It is therefore common practice to propagate the plants from suckers, choosing the best that appear over the course of the growing season.

The center of artichoke culture in the United States is now California, and many heirloom varieties from France and Italy are being grown there. In the mild climate of that region, artichokes will go to seed and become an invasive weed extremely difficult to eradicate. In areas of the country where it is impossible to raise artichokes, I suggest using the green, unopened flower heads of the sunflower. Sunflower buds can be cooked like artichokes, and they have a delightful nutty flavor. Furthermore, they can be used in the following recipe instead of artichoke hearts.

Regarding the other ingredients, the Victorian penchant for butter can be scaled back to a few tablespoons (I suggest 4) and replaced with olive oil. Instead of the truffles and morels, a few chopped fresh figs and some minced fennel may appeal to palates terrified of costly ingredients. Beyond that, I need only mention that the recipe comes from an admirable source: George Augustus Sala’s Thorough Good Cook (1895, 37).

Artichoke Pie Recipe

Boil twelve artichokes, break off the chokes and leaves and take the bottoms clear from the stalks; line the dish with puff-paste, and lay on this four ounces of fresh butter. Place a row of artichokes: strew over them pepper, salt, and beaten mace; then another layer of artichokes: strew on more spice and a quarter of a pound of butter cut in small pieces. Boil half an ounce of truffles and morels, chopped small, in a quarter of a pint of water, and pour into the pie, with a gill of white wine. Cover your pie and bake.


Cynara cardunculus

The cardoon is a much hardier plant than the artichoke and makes an extraordinary ornament in the garden even when it is not being grown for culinary purposes. The leaves of the plant are not easy to miss, for they grow anywhere from four to six feet tall. In the early nineteenth century, the French raised cardoons in large quantities in Provence, at Tours, and in the region around Montpelier. The French Quakers, who were Philadelphia’s link to Montpelier, brought the cultivation of the cardoon to this country early in the 1790s. Many varieties were grown in the city to serve this influential community with names like Bouvier, Girard, and Grellet. Some of the varieties grown were the common, the Spanish, the red, and the prickly variety known as Cardon de Tours. All of these old varieties were used in soups, in stews, and even in salads. Outside of Philadelphia, cardoons were generally raised only by Francophiles like Thomas Jefferson, or by kitchen gardeners farther south in Charleston, Atlanta, and particularly in Louisiana. Of the old varieties, I recommend the Spanish and the cardon de Tours. The Tours variety is very small and therefore does well in small gardens, not to mention that it is several light years ahead of its competitors when it comes to taste. The Spanish cardoon, or cardo cotnún, grown in this country since the eighteenth century, is much less thorny. The wild card is the red-stemmed cardon à côtes rouges, which in visual effect is probably the most striking on a dish.

The cardoon was not a creature of English cookery, as Andrew Mathews pointed out in his discussion of the vegetable (1828, 46-47); thus it would hardly follow that colonials could spread an enthusiasm for it into far-flung places. Mathews was convinced that it was not cultivated among the English because it required “skill in cooking.” He evidently knew nothing of good English cooks or of the Bible Christians, a vegetarian sect that emigrated from Manchester and established its headquarters in Philadelphia in 1816. Allowing no form of animal protein and no animal manures, this sect became a strong force in the cultivation of unusual vegetables and one of the organizing forces behind the American Vegetarian Society. In defense of the John Bull cook, I think frankly that the skill is in the growing, for unlike artichokes, cardoons may be treated as annuals, and where the winter is mild, they can provide a good crop from November through February. The trick is to tie each plant up into a bundle with string, then scatter salt hay over them, and finally earth up the ground so that the hay forms an envelope that blanches the cardoons for at least one month. Then they are ready to harvest.

Philadelphia seedsman Bernard M’Mahon described how to grow the plants in his American Gardener’s Calendar (1806, 197):

The stalks of the leaves being thick, fleshy, and crisp, are the eatable parts, being first blanched by landing them up like celery, to two or three feet high, to render them white, tender, and of an agreeable flavor, which otherwise would be rank and bitter: they are in perfection in autumn and winter.

Growing Cardoons

Sow the seeds towards the latter end of this month [March], or beginning of next, broadcast in a bed of rich earth, and cover them about three quarters of an inch deep, when the plants are three inches high thin them to four or five inches distance, that they may not be drawn up weak; keep them free from weeds, and towards the latter end of May or beginning of June, they will be fit to plant where they are intended to remain for perfection.

I find that they are best thinned and planted in a ditch in sandy soil 8 to 10 inches apart. The plants can then be hilled up in the fall and harvested about a month later. Cold weather will halt their growth; therefore as long as the plants can be kept from freezing, the blanched hearts will remain fit for the table. A thick layer of salt hay thrown over the hills in November usually preserves them into January in my garden. I prefer the shoots poached and served cold as a salad. But beware: the chemistry of cardoons is no different from that of the artichoke. A fine dish of cardoons will not make a fine wine dazzle. Better to serve beer.

The culture of the cardoon is the same as for the artichoke, except that the method of planting is different. Cardoons will cross with artichokes, and therefore must be isolated or caged if the seed is to be used for propagation. The flower resembles a common thistle and therefore can be gathered when the seed is dry and ready to “blow” (float off in the wind). However, the dry flower heads, picked immature and dried in the shade, can be used to curdle milk. This is a valuable alternative for making cheese without rennet, a point of special interest to vegetarians. In fact, several traditional cheeses from the Montpelier region were made exclusively with cardoon flowers rather than with rennet, and this was thought to have had an important influence on their flavor.

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