Artichoke (Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus) and cardoon (Cynara cardunculus var. altilis) are not only unique and delicious additions to your diet, they are gorgeous plants. It is worth saving a bit of room for their majestic form and fascinating flowers. Few gardens with these plants will ever be boring to look at.
Conventionally, the artichoke you know from either the produce section, or pickled in jars, is the innards of an immature flower bud. What you might be less familiar with is how the Europeans (particularly the Greeks and Italians) eat the stems (mostly of cardoon though artichokes are eaten this way too). And like many things in the Mediterranean, they are often eaten with anchovy sauce. If you are not big on anchovy sauce, no worries, there are lots of ways to eat the stems. Think of them almost like celery. The buds on cardoon are also edible, but not bred to have the larger, tastier buds.
Both plants require full sun and rich garden soil. They will live a long time in Arizona if you take good care of them. Feed often with compost tea, kelp, and/or fish emulsion. Plants will die back after blooming their butts off in summer. When you cut back all the dead stuff, add a rich layer of mulch over them. They will love you for it. The more feeding you put into artichokes, the better the results for eating. In early spring/late winter, buds will be the best. Pick them when they are plump but not yet busting out with flowers. Usually, depending on the variety, there is one main bloom, and many side blooms per section. The middle large bloom will want to go first, so grab the biggest (and best) one first. To harvest stems (especially of cardoon) pick before the plants bloom in the cool season. They taste like artichokes only they look like celery. You can steam or braise them. If you blanch them (deprive the stems of light by tying up the stems together) they will be a LOT tastier. In addition to tying them up, wrap them in newspaper. The roots are also boiled and eaten.
Both artichoke and cardoon like a sunny location. Give them lots of room, they will swamp and shade other plants. Put them on the north end of your garden. They want plenty of water but are amazingly forgiving. Don’t freak out when they go dormant and think they are dead.
Plants are hardy in Tucson. It will take below 14 degrees F. to kill an artichoke. Some cultivars have purple or white buds. Be careful of the little prickles on the stems of these plants, they can be irritating. Some have been bred not to have them. Planting them from seed will yield a lot more variety though plants are often available in nurseries. Sow seed indoors in summer and plant in fall (september or october). Franchi has the best selection of seed.
The flowers of both plants are magnificent. And believe me, you won’t be able to eat them all, so enjoy how amazing and gorgeous they are.
Here are a few videos on preparing cardoon and artichoke: