Jerusalem artichokes are a species of sunflower with an edible tuber.
Having nothing to do with Jerusalem and very little to do with artichokes, these members of the sunflower family are native to the eastern half of North America.
There is debate over the source of the name Jerusalem (which may be a corruption of the Italian word for sunflower, girasole), the ‘artichoke’ portion of the name comes from the flavor shared by these two plants. Other people claim these tubers taste more like chard, only sweeter. [Have you eaten Jerusalem artichokes? What do they taste like, too you? Let us know in the Comments!]
Also known as earth apples, sunroots, Canadian truffles, or sunchokes, Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus) have provided an attractive dietary staple to many indigenous peoples. Now naturalized in Europe, thanks to the colonists who sent tubers home, Jerusalem artichokes fell out of favor in the U.S., until recently.
Jerusalem artichoke description
Jerusalem artichokes look like their cousins, the sunflowers, reaching 6 to 15 feet in height, with somewhat smaller, bright yellow flowers. The tubers look a lot like turmeric and ginger. Long and bumpy, these tubers can range in color from brown to white, or purple to red, depending on the species and growing conditions.
Growing Jerusalem artichokes
To grow your own Jerusalem artichoke crop, begin by selecting a site. Remember, these plants are going to be around for a long time, and they can become rather tall. Unlike many other plants, sunchokes seem to enjoy being clumped together, but they should still be planted 8 to 12 inches apart. Create soil mounds over the plantings, 2 to 3 inches deep, and water regularly, allowing the soil to dry out between waterings.
Starting with a single Jerusalem artichoke tuber, you will eventually find your garden overrun with these perennials. Each plant can produce 75 to 200 tubers every year. Left unharvested, each of those will produce tubers of their own. In my book, that’s a good thing - but you may feel differently. Since tubers left in the ground for too long tend to deteriorate, and they can become invasive, Jerusalem artichokes are a good candidate for large containers or raised beds. This will facilitate crop rotation and control the number of Jerusalem artichoke plants you end up with each year. Any little piece of tuber left in the ground is likely to sprout, to plant accordingly.
Grown in containers, Jerusalem artichokes do not need to be fertilized if you start with nutrient rich potting soil mixed with aged compost. Plants will need to be watered deeply, once a week, throughout the summer. Staking may be needed to keep plants from toppling over, or you can grow them along a fence or against a building.
Harvesting Jerusalem artichokes
As the leaves, flowers, and stems begin to die back at the end of the growing season, usually around October, you can dig up the tubers and allow them to dry, unwashed, for storage. Each plant will produce approximately five pounds of tubers. Sunchoke stems can be chopped and used for mulch, while the tubers to be used for the next year’s crop are simply placed back in the growing bed, along with some aged compost, and the cycle begins again.
[Mostly] edible sunchokes
Surprisingly low in starch, Jerusalem artichokes contain a type of carbohydrate sugar, called inulin, which gives them an underlying sweet taste. While the human gut cannot digest inulin, bacteria further down can, so some people may experience a certain ‘airiness’ after eating sunchokes. If they are not bothersome to you, they also provide a lot of potassium, iron, fiber, and B vitamins.
Or, if you prefer, you can ferment your Jerusalem artichoke crop to make brandy, the way they do in Germany.
As an older native plant, sunchokes have very few pests or diseases to worry about. So, mark your calendar to start Jerusalem artichokes in March or April, and start preparing the planting space today!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!