Cardoons and Artichokes Thistles

Thistles are a branch of the huge Daisy family (Asteraceae (was Compositae)) along with Lettuce and Sunflowers. Thistles are a bitter, prickly lot and few are eaten, but the flower of one, the Artichoke, is greatly prized and the leaf stems of a near relative are also used in Mediterranean recipes.

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Cardoons   -   [Cardoni, Cardi, Chard (archaic), Wild Artichoke, Artichoke Thistle; Cynara cardunculus]
Bunch of Cardoon Stalks

This thistle, closely related to the Globe Artichoke, is native to the drier parts of the Mediterranean basin, from Portugal to Greece, and Morocco to Lybia. The large, fleshy leaf stems are widely used as a vegetable in Portugal, Spain, France, Italy and North Africa. The taste is complex, interesting and artichoke-like - if you have developed a taste for slightly bitter vegetables (a worthwhile taste to develop).   Details and Cooking.

Ecology:   Cardoons are decorative, but should not be planted except where they will be carefully controlled. They are aggressive weeds with wind dispersed seeds, and have pushed out native flora in parts of California, Australia, Argentina and elsewhere.

Globe Artichokes   -   [Cynara scolymus]

The edible artichoke is the flower bud of a thistle like plant native to the Mediterranean region, the buds being harvested when mature but not yet opened. It is not known if the Globe Artichoke existed in its current form during the classical Greek and Roman periods but it was definitely available by the 12th century. It may have been developed by selective breeding from the Cardoon, but that too is uncertain.

Essentially all fresh artichokes sold in the U.S. are grown in California, and the dominant Green Globe variety is grown almost entirely in the Salinas Valley on the central coast, production centering in Castroville and Moss Landing. This crop was originally planted by Italian families in the late 1800s and these families remain rather secretive about how to grow the Green Globe commercially.

Whole Frost Damaged Artichoke Frost Damage / Wind Burn:   Artichokes hit by frost or wind will look a bit grungy. They may be sold at a lower price, or may be the only ones available at a certain time. Aside from appearance, they are generally undamaged - just pull of the tough outer leaves and trim the tips of the remaining leaves.

Health & Nutrition:   Artichokes have an antioxidant load considered among the highest for vegetables. They also contain compounds that contribute to healthy digestion (increasing bile flow, improving liver function and supporting beneficial gut bacteria) as well as reducing blood cholesterol and improving the HDL/LDL ratio. Artichoke extracts have been found useful for treating functional dyspepsia and irritable bowel syndrome. The beneficial components are found mostly in the flesh coating the leaves rather than in the heart.

Globe Artichokes - Varieties

Green Globe Artichoke

Whole and Split Green Globe

The dominant artichoke in California, the Green Globe is grown in Monterey County on the central coast. The harvest begins in March and continues well into May with a smaller harvest in September and October. Sizes range from 18 count (jumbo) through 60 count, plus "large loose" (cocktail) and "small loose" (baby) sizes. The "count" is for a 22 to 24 pound case.

The Green Globe is a perennial crop and fairly expensive to produce so attempts to replace it with lower cost annual varieties growable in other parts of California are being made - so far with less than fully satisfactory results.

Baby Artichoke
Whole, Split, Peeled Baby Artichokes

These are not "baby" at all but mature buds that grow lower on the plant toward the end of the season and are used quite differently from the large artichokes. Most formerly went to marinated artichoke heart production but that business has been moved to Spain. "Babies" are consequently becoming more common in the markets and people are learning how to cook them.

Thornless Artichoke   -   [Imperial Star]
This "seed" variety was developed by the University of California (famous for durable but flavorless tomatoes) as an annual that would be less expensive to grow than the perennial Green Globe. It has met considerable consumer resistance because it is neither as tasty nor nearly as meaty as the Green Globe. Harvest is January through April and August through October. Sizes range from 18 count (jumbo) through 60 count.

Desert Globe Artichoke
A proprietary semi-thornless "seed artichoke" developed to counter consumer resistance to the Thornless Artichoke but also grown as an annual crop. It has better flavor and more meat than the Thornless but is still inferior to the Green Globe on both counts. Most production is in Southern California's Riverside and Ventura counties with harvest running from January through March. Sizes range from 18 count (jumbo) through 60 count, plus "large loose" (cocktail) and "small loose" (baby) sizes.

Big Heart Artichoke
Whole and Split Big Heart Artichoke A thornless variety with a wide base that's meatier than the Imperial Star thornless. Grown on the California Central Coast and in the Imperial Valley just north of the Mexican border it is harvested in all months except December, January and April. Sizes range from 8 count (huge) to 48 count. The leaves aren't as fleshy as those of the green globe, but the heart is substantial and has good flavor. The center of the stem can be scooped out with a spoon and eaten. The photo specimen was 4-1/2 inches diameter and weighed 1 pound 3-1/4 ounces.

Lyon Artichoke   -   [Gros Vert de Laon]
Whole and Split Lyon Artichoke

These very spherical artichokes were developed in France, but are now grown also in California. They are very large, weighing up to two pounds each. They are usually shipped with substantial stem because the core of the stem is edible. The heart is quite large.

Sangria Artichoke
Whole and Split Sangria Artichoke

This is a new patented variety released in 2013. Aside from the color, resulting from anthocyanin antioxidants. Aside from decorative color, I found nothing outstanding about this artichoke. The larger was 3-3/4 inches diameter and weighed 10-7/8 ounces.

Euro Chokes
Eruo Choke Heads w/Stems

A trade name for perennial varieties recently developed in France. These are now being grown in California and are shipped with stems as long as 16 inches. The stems contain a lot more edible flesh and less tough fiber than the typical California artichoke.   Photo © i0119.

Other Thistles

Scotch Thistle   -   [Cotton Thistle; Onopordum acanthium]
Scotch Thistle Flower

This plant is native from Iberia east to Kazakhstan and as far north as central Scandinavia. While today it is grown mainly as a decorative and for medicinal properties, in times past the receptacles (flower bases), which can get up to 2 inches across, were eaten similar to how artichokes are eaten today. They're rather small and difficult to handle, so aren't much eaten any more. The seeds were pressed for oil for both cooking and lighting.   Photo by (Unknown) distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

Edible Thistle   -   [Cirsium edule]
Edible Thistle Flower

This plant grows from southeast Alaska though British Columbia, Canada, into Oregon, and there is an isolated population in Iowa. It grows to about 6 feet tall with flower heads about 1-1/2 inch across - too small to eat. American Indians ate young shoots and root tubers. The tubers contain inulin, an indigestible carbohydrate that gives some people digestive distress, but which others consider an important health food. Most people can handle it if they start out with just a little and build up. Inulin is also found in Chicory and other roots.   Photo by Walter Siegmund distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

Creeping Thistle   -   [Canadian Thistle, Lettuce From Hell Thistle, California Thistle, Corn Thistle, Cursed Thistle, Field Thistle, Green Thistle, Hard Thistle, Perennial Thistle, Prickly Thistle, Small-flowered Thistle, Way Thistle; Cirsium arvense]
Creeping Thistle Flower

This thistle is native to Europe and northern Asia, but is now considered a noxious weed in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Brazil. The leaves are edible but too spiny to prepare. The stems, however are not so difficult and can be cooked as a vegetable. The tubers are edible and nutritious, but contain inulin, an indigestible carbohydrate that gives some people digestive distress, but which others consider an important health food. Most people can handle it if they start out with just a little and build up. Inulin is also found in Chicory and other roots.   Photo by MrJones distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

Stemless Carline Thistle   -   [Dwarf Carline Thistle, Silver Thistle, Hunter's Bread; Carlina acaulis]
Carline Thistle Flower

This is a rather odd thistle. It forms a rosette of regular prickly thistle leaves, but never sends up the typical tall stem. The flower just opens right out of the rosette on one of the two subspecies, and atop a very short stem on the other. This plant is native to alpine regions of central and southern Europe, preferring dryish pastures. Young flower head buds can be cooked and eaten like globe artichokes, which resulted in the common name "Hunter's Bread".   Photo by Bernd Haynold distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

Cabbage Thistle   -   [Cirsium oleraceum]
Cabbage Thistle Leaves & Flowers

Native to Central and Eastern Europe and Asia, this thistle grows to about 5 feet high, usually with a single unbranched stem, and prefers moist lowlands. The flower heads are dense and the flowers light yellow or slightly pink. It is cultivated in India and Japan for edible young stems, cooked as a vegetable. I chose the watercolor rather than any of the available photographs because it better shows both leaf and flower head.   Watercolor by Carl Axel Magnus Lindman, copyright expired .

Syrian Thistle   -   [Agavanos (Crete); Notobasis syriaca]
Flowering Syrian Thistle Plant

This nasty looking semi-desert plant is native from the Canary Islands in the Atlantic, along North Africa, through the Levant, and into the Middle East. It doesn't look very edible, but on the island of Crete, tender shoots are peeled and eaten raw. This plant grows to about 39 inches high, so the shoots can be substantial.   Photo by Hans Hillewaert distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

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