Bartlett on Gardening: Boldly Beautiful Cardoon

Cardoon towers commandingly over a mixed spring border.

Last year, I wanted to add some interest to the front border. I paired my favorite ornamental pepper, the black pearl, with silver-leaved Cynara cardunculus, cardoon. This cousin of the globe artichoke is a quite popular vegetable in Spain and Italy. In fact, it was the most expensive "herb" in ancient Rome.

The mid ribs of the leaves have a flavor that is between that of asparagus and artichokes. The ribs of the heart may be eaten raw like celery. The outer ribs can be added to soups and stews or served as side dish, often with a sauce. The flowers and tap root are also edible.

Boldly beautiful, cardoon is worth adding to the border as an architectural element. The arching silver leaves can reach six feet. However, three to four feet is a more realistic expectation.

The first season, the foliage develops. Late the following summer, the plant blooms. The buds resemble little bronze artichokes. The blossoms are deep blue or purple.

Seeds of this perennial are available from specialty vegetable seed companies. Start the seeds indoors eight to 12 weeks before the last frost in mid-April. The plants are not fussy about soils, but need good drainage and regular irrigation.

If you want to harvest the hearts, wrap the whole plant in burlap, cardboard or an old blanket for the month of September to "blanch" it. The leaves can be harvested until we have a hard freeze. To harvest the heart, cut off the plant at its base. My daughter and I have found cardoon to behave like a biennial, so I don't mind sacrificing the plant after it blooms.

Cardoon has been a popular vegetable for thousands of years. The first report if its use as an ornamental is dated 1629.

I love the bold statement it makes in the border but have rarely seen it used except in botanical gardens. So start a conversation with this easy-to-grow ornamental vegetable.

Master gardener Ann Bartlett never lets lack of familiarity with a plant stop her from trying it in the ornamental beds around her home.

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