BACKGROUND Leaves of artichoke (Cynara cardunculus L. subsp. scolymus (L.) Hegi) and cardoon (Cynara cardunculus L. var. altilis DC) are traditionally used as herbal medicine. Moderate salt stress could enhance antioxidant activity and phytochemicals in leaves. The aim of this study was to evaluate the effect of chloride salts (NaCl, KCl and CaCl2) on biomass production, mineral composition, phenolic and flavonoid contents and antioxidant activity in leaves of artichoke and cardoon grown in a floating system. RESULTS In both crops, NaCl and KCl treatments reduced biomass production, while similar values were recorded in CaCl2 and control treatments. In both crops, KCl treatment enhanced total phenolic and flavonoid contents, antioxidant activity and target polyphenols in leaves harvested at 48, 82 and 105 days after sowing (DAS), while leaf quality was improved by NaCl and CaCl2 treatments only at 82 and 105 DAS. Irrespective of salinity, leaves of cardoon had higher total phenolic and flavonoid contents, antioxidant activity and target polyphenols than those of artichoke. CONCLUSION The results showed that application of KCl can be considered an effective way to produce high-quality leaves of artichoke and cardoon during the whole cropping cycle, although resulting in a 30% reduction in plant biomass.