Val Bourne remains head over heels for artichokes and cardoons

There have been advantages to the mild, damp winter with hardly a frost. The robins are already singing every half mile down my lane. The autumn-flowering cherry (Prunus autumnalis ‘Subhirtella’) has stayed in blossom all winter, like a bridesmaid’s headdress, and my handsome, silvery grey-green sheath of cardoon foliage is three feet high. In hard winters this Mediterranean plant can disappear underground, sometimes never to return. However, I have great hopes of an early crop this year, both in the garden and on the allotment.

I admire cardoons for their architectural branching shape and their large blue flowers please the buff-tailed bumble bees greatly. However, I also grow them to eat: they make the perfect hungry gap vegetable between the main crop of winter brassicas and summer vegetables. Picked young and boiled immediately for half an hour or so, with a liberal covering of butter, they make a nutritious lunch. They are messy to eat, granted, but strangely satisfying and just two or three cardoons will provide a succession of heads over weeks.

Artichokes and cardoons are both under the name of Cynara cardunculus now, with the edible globe artichoke varieties listed under ‘scolymus group’. There are several varieties, but ‘Gros Vert de Lâon has an award of garden merit, as does the purple-headed, less prickly ‘Violetto di Choggia’. The latter is a 17th-century Italian variety. ‘Gros de Vert Lâon is large, tasty green-headed French variety with fabulous foliage and Bob Brown of Cotswold Garden Flowers ( sometimes sells this as an ornamental plant because it’s said to have the best foliage.

Artichokes, like all Mediterranean plants, enjoy sun, warmth and reasonable drainage. When winters are mild they put on a lot of growth. Older plants can and do succumb in severe winters and and autumn mulch of straw is advisable in this country. Remove any dead plants and clean away the debris. Take offsets from your survivors, using a sharp knife to slice the new outer shoots off below the ground. Each piece should have some root. Pot the pieces up and give them six weeks in the warmest, lightest place you have. Bed them out once well rooted.

The Greeks and Romans both ate cardoons and kardos and carduus translate as thistle. The Romans believed that artichokes had aphrodisiac qualities and imported them from Cordoba in Spain in large numbers. Henry Vlll grew them at Newhall in 1530, possibly for the same reason. But women and the lower classes were not allowed to eat them in his day. They were literally a forbidden fruit and there is still a misplaced upperclass aura about artichokes today. This is quite wrong, everyone can enjoy a well-cooked artichoke for their flavour is very much like asparagus, but with more depth. You suck the soft flesh out, having removed the choke — the emerging flower at the core.

Now is a good time to think about sowing artichoke seeds. Sow two seeds into each small potful of seed-sowing compost. Select the best seedling, grow on and bed out once rooted. If you have unheated glass wait until early March though. Once mature, these stiff-stemmed, man-high plants will need staking to prevent them collapsing.

For plants and seeds of ‘Violetta di Choggia’ try Sarah Raven — — or Otter Farm