An Edible Petiole: Four Reasons to Grow Cardoon

  • The edible portion, the leaf stalk or petiole, tastes like its sibling artichoke.
  • The form is dramatic—a bold architectural plant for the edible landscape.
  • Electric-blue flowers attract honeybees.
  • This giant perennial provides foliage and stalks for the compost pile.

Harvest Cardoon:

Cynara cardunculus is the botanical name of both cardoon and artichoke. If you grow cardoon as an edible ornamental, just harvest a few stalks in spring, the way you would harvest rhubarb. Let the perennial grow into its statuesque form. The early growth is tender while later in the season the stalks grow bitter. Let the flowers bloom as a bee crop but remove the spiky flower heads before they go to seed. In a few years the plant will be six feet tall.

Serious cardoon eaters, most of who live near the Mediterranean Sea, grow cardoon as an annual row crop planted on three-foot centers. Traditional growers blanch the crop in autumn 2 or 3 weeks before harvesting. Blanching deprives the plant of sunlight to reduce the crop’s bitterness. This process will not enhance the ornamental value, only the edible quality!

Here’s how:  In September or before autumn rains begin, pound a 5-foot stake into the ground close to the crown of each plant and hug the plant to the stake. Next tie twine to the base and spiral up to within six inches of the top. Or tie three separate pieces. Wrap with corrugated cardboard or heavy brown craft paper. Let the top of the plant peek out. Blanch for two or three weeks and then harvest the entire plant. A faster blanching technique  involves cutting roots on one side of the plant, pushing it over without uprooting and covering the plant with dirt.

If you love grey foliage in the garden, but are not interested in the edible petiole, consider this: The Royal Horticultural Society in England has tagged cardoon with their Award of Garden Merit. At Ecology Action Grow-Biointensive the plant has been recognized as a compost crop. A mini-hedge of mature cardoon grows in their Willits garden during the summer and provides carbon for compost piles. Permaculture gardeners like to plant it as an edge crop.

The trick is to harvest the plant before it goes to seed. If you do save seed, please do it responsibly, as escapees have become invasive weeds in Argentina, New Zealand, and parts of California.

Culinary Preparation: Although many traditional cardoon recipes are dairy-rich, Chez Panisse Café has served it as a marinated salad. Prevent the oxidation that turns the leaf stems brown by tossing them in water with lemon juice. Cut stalks to fit in a pan and boil for 15 minutes to remove the bitter flavor. Peel the ribs from large stalks.  Cut into pieces and toss with olive oil and vinegar and garnish with hard-boiled eggs.

Nopal: edible cactus

A friend of mine wrote to let me know of a nopal recipe contest in Hostotipaquillo. Most people who have been to the Southwest know this is the fleshy pad or leaf of the prickly pear, Opuntia cactus. It is a common vegetable in Mexico. I’ve mostly eaten it in salads or with scrambled eggs called nopalitos. The taste reminds me of string beans with a little bit of lemon juice. People can be very creative with it and prepare it boiled, grilled, fried, or mixed into sauces.

What makes nopal so special from a nutrition perspective is that by eating it we can prevent diabetes.

Vendors stand in the plaza. Note the bag of cut nopal at the front edge
Vendors stand in the plaza. Note the bag of cut nopal at the front edge
Mature nopal is an attractive landscape plant.
Mature nopal is an attractive landscape plant.
Immature leaf pads are more tender and flavorful. Wear gloves! I got fingers full of spiny hairs!
Immature leaf pads are more tender and flavorful. Wear gloves! I got fingers full of spiny hairs!

Scientists have figured out some really cool insights to how this works. The prickly pear cactus plant adapts to its dry environment by slowing down water loss with its slimy extracellular mucilage. According to Gary Paul Nabhan, author of Why Some Like it Hot, “the gooey globs of soluble fiber holds water longer and stronger than the moisture held within photosynthesizing cells.” He goes on to explain the mechanism of how this works. He then talks about how nopal works in the human digestive tract.

“ The very mucilage and pectin that slow down the digestion and absorption of sugars in our guts are produced by prickly pears to slow water loss during times of drought. And prickly pear, it turns out, has been among the most effective slow-release foods in helping diabetes-prone native people slow the rise in their blood glucose levels after a sugar-rich meal.”

You can see how to prepare and cook nopal by watching Dr. Tierona Low Dog, director of fellowship at Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, on Dr. Weil’s site

I’ll keep you posted about the winning recipe from Hosto!