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Cardoon has ancient roots and modern popularity

The blue thistle-like foliage of the cardoon emerges in June. It’s related to the globe artichoke.
The blue thistle-like foliage of the cardoon emerges in June. It’s related to the globe artichoke. TNS

Cardoon is a plant the Romans and Greeks ate as a vegetable, but today its popularity is such that you normally find them right alongside other pansy partners like flowering cabbage, kale and mustard. You really could not find a more striking companion plant to grow alongside not only pansies but violas, snapdragons, dianthus and the flush of spring daffodils.

Ancient civilizations ate them and you can too; a quick Internet search will provide you with an abundance of mouthwatering recipes that will allow you to polish your culinary skills. On the other hand they are such magnificent architectural plants in the garden you just may be content to revel in their beauty. The show they put on in the garden is approximately nine months long.

Botanically speaking, cardoon is known scientifically as Cynara cardunculus and is related to the globe artichoke. It is from Morocco, northwest Africa and the Mediterranean, and it is a cold hardy perennial through zone 7. The whole country, however, has started to enjoy them as annuals. I have grown them for years and they have always proved to be real performers. The catalog for one of my favorite nurseries says that cardoon has been chosen by the Royal Horticultural Society as one of the top plants of the past 200 years.

We have some in our Mediterranean garden and others in the cottage garden where we have them partnered with Bouquet Purple dianthus and pansies and flower kale.

When I described it as an architectural plant I was referring to the dramatic statement it makes in the flower border with its long, arching, deeply toothed and soft gray-green foliage. It can easily form a 3- to 5-foot-wide clump by late spring to early summer. In June you will be amazed as the plant reaches its full height, producing 4- to 6-foot-tall spikes with thistle-like, blue-violet or purple blooms.

These cardoon blooms are sought after as one of the most sensational looking cut flowers you’ll ever see in the vase. Each plant produces several flowers to use in your arrangements. After blooming, the plant dies to the ground to return in the fall.

In our Mediterranean garden cardoon fits nicely with other striking foliage like various agave and cold-tolerant bromeliads. Though we also have it with cool-season flowers in the cottage garden, know that it could have its place in a large herb or vegetable garden and as the thriller plant in mixed containers.

Though many culinary artists rave about its use in the kitchen, you may find yourself among the many that will celebrate the fact it is not on the preferred diet of the growing deer population.

Before running out and grabbing your neighbors’ cardoon plants for dinner, be warned that these plants are armed with spines. Besides that, don’t steal them when you can find them at your local garden centers and grow your own.

Cardoon likes deep, fertile soils and plenty of sun. Once established, it can take temperatures in the teens, so get it started in the fall.