Jerusalem Artichokes or Sunchokes

Had to mention this - Sunchokes are not related to Artichokes at all! They are a fun plant to grow but they are related to Sunflowers. And you don't eat the flowers, you eat the root rhizomes.

Sunchokes are hardy perennials around here and can get out of control. They are also very tall, so plan a spot where they are both controllable and won't shade your sunloving plants in late summer. I use the flowers for cutting so I give mine a very severe trimming in late summer and dig the tubers up toward the end of September.

I often have trouble harvesting the roots of perennial plants, but I don't have an issue with harvesting these - you simply cannot eradicate them.

Like artichokes, Milk Thistles need a long growing season to get flower or seed heads. I usually start my Milk Thistle seeds inside under lights in late February, transplant into pots in April, and plant them out in the field once it warms up at the end of May. To harvest seeds, you let the chokes turn purple and then let them dry up and turn brown. This happens in late September or October. As soon as they turn brown, I bring them inside and let them dry out the rest of the way on a screen. If you try to let them dry outside they almost always get moldy. Fall tends to be cool and damp and they will ripen fully even cut off the plant. You know the seeds are ripe when they turn brown. You could get 1/4 cup of seed from each plant if all goes well...

I make a tea with Milk Thistle Seed, Dandelion Root, Burdock Root, and White Oak Bark that I drink as a Spring detox a couple times a day for 2-3 days.  

Like most thistles, the whole plant is edible, but the stickers prevent a lot of munching. So Milk Thistle is mostly grown for its seeds, which are the medicinal part. Once the seeds are ground up, they get old fast - so it is best to not use commercially-made milk thistle products like tea bags or capsules as they tend to be very weak. The whole seeds store very well, so it is best to grind up the whole seeds right before use them. I usually buy Milk Thistle Seeds from Mountain Rose Herbs - they are certified organic, nice and fresh and considering the work I would have to go through to grow and harvest my own, the price is amazing cheap! I have lately been grinding up a tbsp or so of seeds in a coffee grinder and sprinkling over salads. The taste is mild with a slightly nutty flavor.
It makes your salad even more detoxifying and energizing! Even if you try to live a super clean organic lifestyle, your liver still gets exposed to things that damages it or keeps it from functioning optimally. Your liver is your first line of defense that your body has for keeping itself healthy so using Milk Thistle seed as an extra support regularly just makes sense.

Even though I usually buy bulk Milk Thistle Seeds for using, I grow the plant anyway. It is an amazingly handsome and dramatic looking plant. It is tall and shaped like an artichoke or cardoon plant, but instead of dusty silvery leaves, the Milk Thistle plant has leathery, thick, smooth leaves that are dark forest green with a white varigation down the center. Stunning, truly.

Milk Thistle

The seeds of the Milk Thistle are one of the best liver protectors and healers in the plant world.

They stimulate the regeneration of liver tissue, guard against free radical oxidation, boost the body's synthesis of glutathione, a major anti-oxidant, and even lower fat build up in liver. These seeds have been reported to reverse mushroom poisoning in Europe. Milk Thistle also acts on the liver as a stimulant - breaking up stagnation of the liver.

A combination with Milk Thistle and Mugwort, Oregon Grape Root, Yellow Dock Root, Artichoke, and Bupleurum would be lovely for waking up the liver.

I think right now the vast amounts of cardoons being grown in individual gardens are for decorative purposes - these are gorgeous plants with a strong architectural structure of attractive pointy silvery-green leaves. Artichokes and Milk Thistles are also highly ornamental, large, attractive plants, despite the stickers.

If they are started very early inside and either well-protected from cool weather or brought indoors in the fall, you can get pretty sizeable cardoon leaves. I start my cardoon seeds mid January under lights. You don't need to vernalize cardoons, as we don't really want them to get flower buds. Cardoons may get buds or chokes but if you are trying to get nice big meaty stems for Thanksgiving or Christmas Dinner you should cut these off and let the plant focus on leaf growth. In the fall, about 2-3 weeks before you plan to harvest them, pull the leaves together into a bunch and wrap them in a piece of burlap or newspaper to blanch them. This makes the stems grow fatter and paler and less bitter.


RECIPE: Baked Christmas* Cardoons
*Delicious anytime on cold wintry days especially!

about 2 bunches of cardoons
6 tbsp butter, softened
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
freshly grated Parmesan cheese
about 1-1/2 tsp sea salt
fresh black pepper

Bring water to boil in a large pot. Take cardoon pieces out of lemon water and place into boiling water. There is one issue here to be aware of - the smaller pieces will cook much faster than the bigger ones. So you either put all the pieces in together and remove the thinner ones first, or cook them separately. Either way add a heel of old bread to the water as you start cooking the cardoons. This may just be a tradition, but it supposedly helps remove the bitterness and I've always been afraid not to add the bread.

The thinner stalk pieces will take about half an hour to get fork-tender. The thicker pieces may take up to an hour. Once they are all cooked, drain thoroughly.

Meanwhile preheat oven to 350 degrees. You will need a baking dish that will allow you to make 2-4 layers of the cardoon pieces, so it will be a pretty small baking dish. The thicker the better for this recipe. Coat your baking dish with about 2-3 tbsp of butter. Melt the rest of the butter.

Once the cardoons are cool enough to handle, spread some out in a single layer in the baking dish. Sprinkle lightly with some of the salt and pepper to taste and some of the grated cheese. You don't want to mask the cardoon flavor with the cheese - you want to use just a dash of cheese to bring out the cardoon flavor. Continue layering with rest of cardoons. Pour melted butter and olive oil over the top, add a dash more cheese...

Bake covered for 35-40 minutes. Then uncover and bake another 10 minutes or so until it is golden brown and bubbling.

Find a pot that would hold how ever many artichokes you want to cook standing up on their bottoms. Prep your chokes as above. Place them into the pot and fill the pot with water about 2/3 up the sides of the chokes. Add a large drizzle of Olive Oil over the tops of the chokes. Some slices of onion and black pepper would be lovely to add to the pot as well.

Like Artichokes, Cardoons require a bit of prep work. Here's some prepping steps:

  Loosen up the Cardoon bunch which resembles a celery bunch in structure.
    Snap off the outer big ribs and work toward the center until you get to the nice tender pale inner leaves.
    Cut the bottom off the inner leaves so they fall apart, and cut into manageably sized pieces for your recipe. Plop into lemoned water.
    Then start to trim and clean up the outer stalks.
    Trim off any brown areas, peel lightly with a peeler and put any strings out just as if you were cleaning celery.
    Cut into properly sized chunks and place into the lemoned water.

I have heard that people used to consider the roots of the Gobbo di Nizza delectable. I may have to try them!

The buds or chokes of cardoons are very small, these plants are grown for their large meaty leaves. You strip the thin leafy part off the leaves and eat the leaf rib - kind of the opposite of Swiss Chard where most people strip off the green leafy part and disgard the thick stem-like ribs. (Although I have to say I always cook my chard stems...)

Cardoons are a very traditional holiday meal for Italian and French people during Christmas time. The flavor goes very well with Truffles, which are usually in season at the same time in Italy.


Cardoons or Cardi as they are known in Italy, like artichokes, require a long growing season to get to a size big enough to make the preparation and cooking worthwhile. We are growing two varieties this year, the Gobbo di Nizza, which is the one we had last year, and the Cardoon Bianco Avorio. We liked the flavor and the tenderness of the Gobbo di Nizza. It is considered the best cardoon variety for flavor. But we found that it wasn't nearly as large as we expected it would be and the stems were very thin compared to the stems of our artichoke plants being grown right next to them. Maybe if we had a warmer summer and fall Gobbo di Nizza may have preformed better, so we're trying it again. But we also decided we had to try Cardoon Bianco Avorio which is supposed to be faster growing.

Add the salt and pepper, and take off the heat to cool a bit. Once cool enough to handle, break up the bread into crumbs and mix the stuffing by hand. Keep the mixing light don't totally mash it together. If you need more liquid, add some of the reserved clam juice.

Place the artichoke in a sauce pot that is small enough that it can't fall over, but not so small you have to jam it in there. If you have more than one choke, then pick a pot that can fit them all, standing up side by side and not fall over.

Stuff the choke, you may need to re-open the bud as it does tend to close itself again.  Add the rest of the clam juice, about 1/8 cup of olive oil per choke, and some water as needed so the liquid goes about 1/2 of the way up the sides of the chokes. I always add very thin circles of onion slices over the tops of the chokes... or some parsley sprigs or celery leaves...

Cook, covered on low heat for about an hour to 3 hours, depending on how big they are.

Make the stuffing:

Artichoke stem, minced by hand
½ of a medium onion, minced by hand
1 clove garlic, minced by hand
¼-1/3 can of chopped or minced clams (drained but save clam juice)
1-2 tbsp dried parsley
olive oil or butter
1 piece of bread
salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oil or butter in a small sauté pan. Add the onions, artichoke stems, clam meats, parsley, and garlic. Cook until the onion and artichoke is soft, and most of the liquid is absorbed. It will smell divine!

Per artichoke: (but it is best to make a bunch! You can also prep them and stuff them and store in the fridge a few days before cooking.)

First prepare the choke: Follow the same steps as above, but really loosen the leaves and open up the middle of the choke. You have to be a bit rough here, but be careful not to break the choke. Once it is relatively open, grab the center leaves and twist them out of the choke. Be careful of interior spikes while doing this, especially as you get closer to the inside. You need to make a space for the stuffing, which will be about ½ - ¾ cup worth. You will want to get all the fuzzy hairy pieces out of the center too, which are very sharp. After you get the choke open, wash it thoroughly, and then plop it into the lemoned water.

RECIPE: Artichokes with Clam Stuffing

RECIPE: Steamed Artichokes are Simple and Easy

Find a pot that would hold how ever many artichokes you want to cook standing up on their bottoms. Prep your chokes as above. Place them into the pot and fill the pot with water about 2/3 up the sides of the chokes. Add a large drizzle of Olive Oil over the tops of the chokes. Some slices of onion and black pepper would be lovely to add to the pot as well.

Cook the chokes with the heat on medium-low and the cover ajar for about 1-2 hours depending on how big and full the chokes are. Test for doneness by pulling on a leaf from around the middle area of one choke - if it comes off easily the chokes are done. If there is any resistance, keep cooking.

To eat them, simply plop each choke in a bowl, and pull the leaves off and scrap off the meat from the bottom of each leaf with your teeth. A bowl for discarding the bitten leaves makes it easier. When you get to the center, be careful of spikes. Eventually as you approach the heart, there will be a lot of fur (this fur turns into the purple flower). Remove the fur and don't eat it or any of the spiky leaves inside. But under the fur, you will find the meaty and delicious heart!

​Here's my typical artichoke prep steps:

Start by cutting the top 1-1/2 inch off.
Trim the dried end of the stem off, then cut the stem off, but save it. Make sure the choke can stand up on its bottom, now.
Then with a pair of scissors, trim the spiky points off all the leaves.
Then loosen the leaves slightly and rinse off.
Plunge into some lemoned water to prevent browning while you prep the next chokes.

Artichokes are often viewed as too much work to cook - and they do involve some prep before cooking. And they take some time to eat as well...

Artichoke varieties that we're growing this year:

Artichokes fall into two main types - Green Globe and Long Purples

  • "Imperial Star" Green Globe - is a super fast new artichoke variety bred specifically to be grown in areas like ours as an annual.
  • Romanesco Green Globe - Wide and round globes - we have great success with this Italian Heirloom variety in our greenhouse. Outside, our success depends on the weather...
  •  Violetto Precoce - Is a purple colored elongated style artichoke - this choke is tender and flavorful and has been grown in Italy for hundreds of years.
  • di Romagne - Another long regional purple heirloom from Italy. This is our first year trying this one.
  • "Opera" Long Purple - We are considering trying this new variety from Johnny's seeds this year, to see if we get good flavor from a non-heirloom that can be grown in the field, but the seeds are $1 each! I hope they all germinate perfectly at that price!

When cutting off your artichokes - remember that the stems are delicious and tender and meaty. They are full of artichoke flavor and can be used as cardoons as well. So cut yourself off a lot of stem. But if you get too greedy and cut too low on the stem of the primary buds, you'll cut off where the secondary buds would have come in. Of course, if it is late in the season and you don't think you will have time for secondaries to develop, then take as much stem as possible and enjoy them!!

The buds are usually ready for harvesting in late September or into October depending on the variety. Some new varieties like Imperial Star can be ready for harvest in August! As gorgeously dramatic as the buds look, make sure you actually cut them off and eat them! Once the buds start to open up too much, the heart starts to dissolve away to support seed production. (Unless you are trying to save some seeds for next year.) Also, artichokes bud in two flushes if they have enough time with warm weather. The first buds are called 'primaries' and are larger. The 'secondaries' then come in on side shoots off the main stem (like broccoli) and are smaller but tasty and seem to have more meat ratio-wise than the primaries.

So my artichoke growing procedure goes like this:

  • First in mid-January I sow the artichoke seeds inside under lights at room temperature.

  • I find that many artichoke seeds are duds or albino - so plant plenty of seeds and cull out any seedlings that look poor or are white.

  • Once the nice, even and healthy seedlings get 4 6 true leaves, move them to someplace cold. They shouldn't be exposed to temperatures less than 30 degrees, but they need a good chill at just around freezing. You can put them in a window in a cold basement or in a cold frame or cold greenhouse. Most varieties and especially the heirlooms need 2-4 weeks of this chilliness.

  • Then move them back into a warm place at around 60-70 degrees F. This process of cold-warm exposure is called vernalization.

  • Once they start growing again, transplant to large pots. They can be planted out in the garden after the last frost date - I usually wait until the end of May. If you can situate them against a south-facing wall or some other particularly warm and protected spot, your artichokes will do very well and they may even come back the following year. 

For several years I would keep artichoke seedlings through one winter and sell them at the Plant Sale as "2-year old" artichoke plants.

But I have discovered that simply exposing the seedlings to a cold spell - or vernalizing them - accomplishes the same thing and obviously cuts way back on time!

Many people think artichokes are impossible to grow around here because most varieties are zone 7 - maybe zone 6. But that is only if you are trying to grow them as perennials. Artichokes are perennials and will come back after the winter for at least 3-4 years. (I have a bunch of artichokes growing in my greenhouse, which is set to get as cold as 33 degrees F.) But you can also successfully grow artichokes as annuals. The first trick is to give them enough time. They require a long warm growing season. And next trick is to vernalize the young plants - in other words, you have to let your young plants experience a cold period.

Let's start with Artichokes

Artichokes are thistles and wonderfully delicious ones!

The artichoke that you buy in the store is actually a thistle bud. If you don't harvest it as a bud and let it keep growing it will turn into a giant purple flower just like a Bull Thistle. And it will get all fluffy too!

Artichokes require very rich soil. They love to grow in compost piles. The soil must be well-drained and yet they must be watered regularly. If you they get too dry even early in the season the buds and stems will lack meatiness.

Artichokes have been used medicinally as detoxifiers as well as for indigestion and as a bitter for centuries.

It seems that most people cringe when they hear the word, thistle. Thistles are one of those plants with all sorts of cultural history and that evoke a wide array of emotional responses. They are everything from medicine to cultural symbols to delicious holiday meals to decorative designs for shortbread!

I love artichoke flavor, and I like growing thistles in general. I understand and accept the spines and spikes - and I make sure to wear gloves or not touch them! I think it is super cool that Artichokes are related to those onerous and sometimes bad-tempered Bull thistles, so I started pulling together an article on All-Things-Thistle.

Thistles - Growing, Eating, and Getting Healthier ! 

Bull thistles are the particularly large and chunky thistles that start as a very dense, very flat rosette of dark green leaves with silvery, and truly impossibly dense, stickers. Most gloves won't protect you from these monsters. Anyway, they get very tall - over 5 feet high often - and they get large, purple flowers very similar in color to artichoke flowers. The flowers are loved by bees - especially Bumblebees. And the flowers turn into fluffy puffs that goldfinch and other birds use for their nests.

The Bull Thistle has a lot of same medicinal qualities as other thistles, but the stickers make it impossible to utilize in any efficient manner. Best to let the bumblebees and gold finches figure it out!

Wild Thistles

Although I would recommend that you work to eradicate all Sow or Canada Thistle from your garden or yard, I do hold a controlled and careful place in my heart for Bull Thistles.

I do find that at least in my yard, Bull Thistle doesn't go crazy spreading, but you should keep you eye on it. I think it doesn't get to go crazy here because we have lots and lots of wild thistle-eating birds, and they love the bigger seeds of the Bull Thistle. Too bad they don't seem to want to bother with the Sow Thistles...

Blessed Thistle

Blessed Thistle is a wild-looking, weedy-looking thistle plant. It has a long history of medicinal use for various complaints and issues and is still used to various herbal liquors. Blessed Thistle, also known as Holy Thistle or St. Benedict's Thistle, is rumored to be one of the 27 secret herbs that have been used to make Benedictine Liquor since 1510 in the Abbey of Fécamp, in Normandy.

Blessed Thistle is used by herbalists mostly as a bitter - aiding in digestion and stimulating appetite. In the Middle Ages it was a popular tonic especially among monks and is still used as a general tonic. It is also used to encourage and promote lactation.

I have found that it grows fine around here but doesn't thrive and spread, which is probably just as well because it is similar in appearance to annoying thistles like Sow and Canada thistles. It doesn't get tall like those thistles though - it stays about 1-2 feet high, sports yellow-pinkish flowers, and has a reddish tinge overall.