Cynara cardunculus, the perennial plant commonly known as the cardoon, is a member of Asteraceae, the second largest family of flowering plants. The plant is native to the Mediterranean Basin, but beyond its contemporary cultivation in areas of France, Spain, and Italy, it also grows in different parts of California, South America, and Australia. It figures in a number of recipes from the culinary traditions of Spain and Portugal (in the Spanish Cocido madrileno, for instance), and, traditionally, the battered and fried stems are served at the altars of St. Joseph that are scattered throughout the streets of New Orleans. Additionally, the plant produces a vegetarian substitute for rennet, an enzyme integral to the production of several European cheeses.
For gardeners, C. cardunculus, which is one of 8 species included in Cynara, tends to be somewhat cumbersome: beyond its tenacious, weed-like invasiveness, it requires both a large amount of open space (specimens must be planted around ¾ of a metre apart) and a lengthy growing period of up to 5 months. While its fleshy taproot enables it to tolerate dry soils and climates, the plant’s hardiness to drought is matched by its inability to cope with frost and snow. The apex, which in the right soil conditions stands as high as 3 or 4 metres, puts forth a large and many-flowered head of blue or purplish flowers loaded with pollen.
Specimens are planted both in our Food Garden and in our Physic Garden, as elements in the leaves are commonly thought to benefit digestion, circulation, as well as the functioning of the liver and the gall bladder.