6:50am Thursday 17th March 2011
By Val Bourne
I know that spring must be here. The dried flowers cut from the globe artichokes last August have started to release their seeds. They resemble giant dandelion parachutes, but with daddy long legs’ limbs. Although the large blue thistles have delighted me all winter, it’s time to get rid of them before they completely explode all over the kitchen floor — forming a sea of spidery legs.
It’s a good job I’ve got some seeds because I suspect that my plants on the allotment (which I really must get out to) are dead, killed by the coldest December on record. Globe artichokes should be protected with straw over winter, but the sudden onset of really cold weather took me by surprise, and that’s my excuse. If I find a good surviving plant I shall be able to take a sharp knife and slice the new outer shoots off below the ground.
Each viable piece should have some root. If I pot them up and give them six weeks in the warmest, lightest place I have, I can bed them out once they are well rooted. These tap-rooted plants cannot be dug up and divided in the normal way.
These Mediterranean plants are not bone hardy and they do much of their growing early on, forming a fountain of cut, silver foliage a foot above the ground. These are statuesque plants that double up in the vegetable garden and the sun-baked flower border.
Both are listed under Cynara. However, the edible cardoons used to considered a different species (C. scolymus) but they are now all joined together under C. cardunculus, a name that means thistle. I used to just grow these tall, thistly plants as an ornament. Those spiny buds had put me off eating them for years, but one summer’s day I was forced to cook some for lunch.
There was simply nothing else edible in the garden. It was too early for peas, beans and all the tender salad crops I would normally devour.
They were surprisingly delicious boiled in salty water and then buttered. The petals came away easily leaving the inedible choke — the heart of the flower.
So now some of mine are eaten (always cooked very fresh) and some are left as bee pleasers. As I contemplate the seeds I am about to sow, I can feel myself salivating at the thought of next summer’s feast.
You can buy seeds and sow them now. Place two into small potfuls of compost. Select the best, and bed out once rooted. If you have unheated glass you can do this in early March, or you can wait for four weeks and place the pots outside.
Young plants can also be ordered now for May dispatch.
Good varieties include ‘Concerto’ F1, a new vigorous variety with purple-washed jade-green heads. ‘Violetta di Chioggia’ has deep-purple heads and this very ornamental cardoon is earlier than others.
‘Green Globe Improved’ is the most available and the heads are said ot be less prickly. ‘Imperial Star’ is a highly selected seed strain from ‘Green Globe’ and ‘Gros Vert de Laon’ is a heritage French variety with the largest green heads and the best finely-cut foliage.
The Greeks and Romans both ate globe artichokes and the Romans believed this plant had aphrodisiac qualities. Henry VIII grew them at Newhall in 1530 —possibly for the same reason — but women and people of low birth were not allowed to eat them in his day.
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