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A prickly mystery

'What on earth are those?" I don't think of Eddie as easily amazed. But here were distinct hints of awe. Nor is he the first. Someone else said: "Wow! They look like dinosaur food."

Eddie - and his wife, Maria - are not plotters. They are neighbors at home. On their evening constitutional, they had popped into my plot for rhubarb. Eddie even likes eating it raw. They are so fond of it they never hesitate to ask me if I have some available. Or anyone else.

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One day at the gate they accosted The Postman. "Any rhubarb to spare?" they inquired.

"Have I!" exclaimed he, and gave them a load of the stuff. (This plotter is known as The Postman because his plot resembles a stamp collection: a patchwork of small rectangular beds.)

It was not my rhubarb, however, that prompted Eddie's astonished question that balmy evening. It was a quite different vegetative phenomenon.

He and Maria gazed at it while I fetched a knife from my shed to decapitate some dark-red rhubarb sticks before bundling them.

"Ah," I answered. "I'm not sure."

A threesome standing in an approximate triangle, the awesome plants are classically statuesque, imposing, grandiose, and, well, big. And unlike the ubiquitous rhubarb, I haven't seen them in any other plot.

They are either globe artichokes or cardoons.

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They were small when given to me last year by the Visiting Artist. She swears they had clearly written labels. OK. So some word-eating bird got 'em. I don't know. But they are now unmarked.

At the start of this season all three looked identical. Now, in their humongous maturity, it seems I have two of one, and one of the other.

But which is which? This matters because you eat them quite differently.

Is the shorter, yellower one, with its giant-thistle leaves branching from the base, a cardoon? The V.A. says it is.

But the other two - now promising flower heads atop trunk-stems from which enormous leaves arch at intervals - are they artichokes? The V.A. thinks so.

"They're 'cardoonichokes,' Eddie," I reply. Pause. "Or 'artidoons.' " Eddie (as well he might) looks puzzled. "Or 'arty-jokes.' "

Most veggie books really don't help with this question. Christopher Lloyd, though, never short of a briskly articulated opinion, says:

"The globe artichoke, Cynara scolymus [was] developed from the cardoon, C. cardunculus, a much taller plant with violently prickly flower heads that do not at all lend themselves to handling at table, although their young stems can be blanched for eating like celery."

Which is all very well if you can distinguish an unlabeled cardoon from an anonymous artichoke when they start their spring-summer surge.

If the shorter of my giants cannot be a cardoon because it should be "much taller" than the other two, then it must be an artichoke. But since I can't be certain of this until it flowers (either prickly and violent, or perfect for eating), by that time the stems will no longer be "young" and blanchable.

To date, it shows no sign of a flower.

ON the other hand, the taller giants' flower heads, though mere teenagers, look potentially violent and prickly to me. Yet, should these be artichokes, if I allow their heads to develop too far they will, by then, be too old to eat....

Is there a moral to be found in this complex horticultural tale? I really don't know.

I suppose it could be either that one ought to (a) use labels that taste bad to birds, or (b) stick to rhubarb.

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