Bartlett on Gardening: Sunchokes

Growing across the continent from North Dakota and Texas to the Atlantic shore, “sun roots,” as the Native Americans called them, were an important source of fresh food during a time of year when little else was available. We call them sunchokes or Jerusalem artichokes.

Helianthus tuberosus is a type of sunflower which blooms in mid autumn, making it an important late nectar source for insects. The plants reach six to 10 feet tall and their numerous yellow flowers are four inches in diameter. Sunchokes will grow anywhere, but in a wetland situation where the tubers will rot. The tubers may be dug whenever the ground is not frozen. Flavor is best after frost, so most are harvested in late autumn and stored in a cool, dry place.

The plant stores a type of sugar in the tubers that it uses to support the spring emergence of new top growth. This sugar is called “inulin” (not to be confused with “insulin”) and is said by some to be indigestible unless one has the gut flora to handle it. Inulin has been reported as a notorious cause of painful intestinal gas, but others notice no side effects whatsoever. Eating small amounts of the tubers may help build up the beneficial bacteria needed to digest them. In any case, if sunchokes are indigestible, it is amazing to find so many ways to prepare them on the internet!

The tubers have the texture of water chestnuts and a somewhat nutty flavor. They contain no starch, a small amount of protein and high-quality fiber. Sunchokes can be eaten raw, roasted, toasted or boiled. A friend of mine has a recipe passed down through her family for a delicious sunchoke relish. The skin may be scrubbed clean or peeled off before cooking. The tubers quickly discolor after peeling, so be prepared to cook them right away. Thorough cooking reduces the inulin content, making them better tolerated by many.

The plants can be a useful ornamental where one wants a tall backdrop. I once grew them along a deck that was about five feet above the ground. They really helped tie the structure to the garden, and we could enjoy the flowers on the deck. In spring, plant the tubers 4 to 6 inches deep and 12 to 18 inches apart. They multiply rapidly and can become invasive. They are drought tolerant and thrive in any well-drained soil.

The greatest mystery about this plant lies in its name “Jerusalem Artichoke.” It does not resemble an artichoke and has no connection to the Holy Land. The French explorer Samuel Champlain, who introduced sun roots in Europe, in 1605 declared that they tasted like artichokes. He referenced a flavor which was familiar to him and that first impression is still with us today. Besides, in Europe they were called girasole, Italian for sunflower. To British ears, “girasole” and “Jerusalem” sounded alike and the name stuck. Despite the inaccuracy of the name, there is even a historic recipe for “Palestine soup “featuring the tubers.

Over the past two decades, there has been some effort to restore this root vegetable to American tables. Specialty growers for farmers’ markets are probably the best place to search for sunchokes here. As easy as they are to grow, you might like to try a few in your garden next year.

Master gardener Ann Bartlett never lets lack of familiarity with a plant stop her from trying it in the ornamental beds around her home.

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