I went for a hike with my dog the other day in an undeveloped open space in the East Bay hills, one that at this time of year is graced with sweet-smelling golden grasses, sturdy coastal live oaks and a surprising variety of flowering perennials, despite the lack of recent rain.
Over the years, my neighbors and I have become volunteer stewards of the park, forming work parties to groom the trails, pick up trash and remove non-native invasive species, so I took it a bit personally when I rounded a bend in the trail and came upon a big, spiky cardoon plant, defiantly thriving there on the hillside despite our repeated efforts to kill it over the past few years.
Most folks wouldn’t have the slightest idea what to say if asked to describe what cardoon (Cynara cardunculus) looks like, but they would probably recognize its widely cultivated sister, the globe artichoke (Cynara scolymus). Yep, the leathery thistle plant my neighbors and I so valiantly try to eradicate is the wild version of the same species that we love to turn into creamy dips and hot fritters.
Realizing this set me to wondering: What makes one variety of the plant an undesirable weed and the other welcome at our dinner tables?
Cardoon can be eaten just like an artichoke, though it’s the leaf stems that are considered the best part, as opposed to the flower buds that we prefer on artichokes. Native to the Mediterranean, where it was domesticated in ancient times, cardoon was described as early as the fourth century BC by the Greek philosopher and naturalist, Theophrastus, who wrote about them being grown for food in Italy and Sicily.
It was a staple in Greek and Roman diets, and — despite the undeniable global popularity of the artichoke — cardoon is still cultivated in parts of Europe and northern Africa today. Its flower buds are eaten in some regions, but the leaf stalks, which look like large celery stalks, are more widely braised as a vegetable or to make an artichoke-flavored stock. In Italy and Spain, cardoon is the basis for traditional holiday meals and national dishes, and in Portugal, it’s used as a source of vegetable rennet for cheese production.
In the U.S., though, cardoon is rarely sold and seldom eaten (aside from a dish of battered and friend stems traditionally served at St. Joseph’s altars in New Orleans during Lent). Cardoon was once a common vegetable here, though. It was cultivated in the gardens of colonial America and only fell from favor when French immigrants brought artichokes with them to Louisiana in the early 1800s. The first commercial artichoke fields were planted there, but they didn’t do so well, and by the late 1800s the Spanish had established productive fields in the Monterey area, where we still find them today. Some 99% of artichokes in the U.S. are now grown in California, making them a key player in the state’s agricultural economy.
So why did cardoon fall out of favor and why did artichokes take over? If this were a chapter in The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan would say that the globe artichoke was better than the cardoon at manipulating humans to keep it alive and to spread its genes. To wit: Artichoke plants are larger (up to 6.5 feet tall) and less spiny than cardoon, and they have thicker leaf stems and larger flowers, all characteristics favored by humans for bigger crop yields and easier harvesting, processing and eating.
So favor them we do, and in a big way.
According to the Agricultural Marketing Research Center, in the U.S., “total production in 2012 was 110 million pounds, up from the previous two years, and the crop was valued at $53.7 million.” That sounds like a lot of artichokes, but we actually only rank 8th in global cultivation, with the rest of the world – from Europe to the Mideast to Latin America – producing some 1.32 million tons of the prickly things. (Italy is the top producer, with a yield that is nearly ten times what the U.S. grows).
Since it appears that the whole world is crazy for artichokes, it would be easy to assume that the chokes have triumphed over cardoon in the battle for human-assisted survival of the species. But we can’t count cardoon out just yet.
Although shunned in favor of its more palatable sister, cardoon has nonetheless attracted recent attention as a possible source of biodiesel. The oil extracted from cardoon seeds (ironically known as artichoke oil) is similar to safflower or sunflower oil and is most commonly used for cooking. But some folks see a bigger potential. Much bigger.
Cardoon is poised to become the feedstock for the world’s first biorefinery that will produce fuels, power and chemicals from biomass by converting a petrochemical plant in Porto Novo, Sardinia from traditional fossil fuel processing to bio-based productions.
Cardoon will provide the biomass and oils for biodegradable plant-based plastics, and possibly fuel products as well. The company, Matrica, is a joint venture of Italy’s largest chemical company, Polimeri Europa, and Novamont, a global leader in biodegradable plastics. The forward-looking project – worth some 500-million Euros — is slated to open this Fall.
It seems that although we long ago favored the artichoke to grace our tables, cardoon also may have found a way to manipulate humans for its long-term survival – and offer a new twist on the food vs. fuel debate.