Vegetable fashions may come and go, but Jerusalem artichokes have been grown on this continent for a very long time. Native American gardeners were tending this nutritious crop well before it caught the eye of Sir Walter Raleigh, who brought it back to England, and the explorer Samuel de Champlain, who introduced it to France.
This knobby tuber is the enlarged underground stem of Helianthus tuberosus, one of our many indigenous sunflowers, but its common name seems designed to mislead. It neither resembles nor shares a kinship with the true artichoke, though some detect a similar flavor. The Jerusalem connection is equally spurious — a corruption, most likely of the Italian girasole, which translates as “turning toward the sun,” and refers to a trait that all sunflowers share.
The crop proved a great success throughout Europe, both for livestock and humans, thanks in part to its prodigious yields (as much as 20 tons per acre). But it was not until the 1960s and 1970s, when Americans started to become more adventurous with their diet, that the plant started coming up in conversation. Gardeners began to grow it, stores started to sell it.
“The Victory Garden Cookbook,” published in 1982, described more than 20 ways to serve it. It even got a more enticing new name — sunchoke. In fact, let’s call it that. It’s listed as such in the Fedco catalog, which offers several heirloom strains.
The fuss about sunchokes seems to have died down a bit. Perhaps everyone who wanted to try growing them did so, and those who continued now have a permanent supply.
Though quite beautiful, with golden sunflower-shaped blooms, this is not a timid plant. It can grow as tall as 10 or 12 feet in good soil, and spreads so vigorously that it is considered indestructible. It can lift sidewalks.
Only extreme aridity seems to daunt it, though I did hear once of a crop obliterated by hungry deer. I wouldn’t even call it a “garden” plant. To grow it in a small yard would be like raising Bernese mountain dogs in a studio apartment. It’s been suggested as a good plant with which to shade lettuce or spinach in summer, but if those crops are close enough to receive its shade they’re close enough for a hostile takeover. Give it a separate bed, edged with something sturdy — a building, for example.
Better still, treat it as edible landscaping. Create a hedge of it alongside a fence, or a grove of it in front of your brush pile.
You’ll find that sunchokes have a sweeter, nuttier taste if dug after a few frosts. They’re an excellent source of iron, potassium and fiber, especially if eaten with the thin skins left on. Many consider them the perfect potato substitute because you can cook them any way you’d cook a potato. Yet they’re much lower in calories, and starch free.
Diabetics can eat them with impunity. Admittedly, their flavor is a bit bland, and they cry out for the accessories that make potato dishes so good — butter, oil, cheese and cream. Roast them, fry them or, better yet, make them into a creamy soup. Avoid using iron or aluminum pans, which can discolor them, and refrain from overcooking, lest they disintegrate.
Sunchokes shine as a raw vegetable. This may be what attracted so many “crunchy” eaters to them in the first place. Substitute them for water chestnuts or jicama root, as a crisp addition to a salad or with a dip. They’re welcome at a time when the fresh snap of cucumber and celery is only a summer memory.
Pry sunchokes from the soil at the base of the plants with a digging fork, wearing gloves because the stems are prickly. You can leave the dead tops as a mulch over them to keep the soil unfrozen and diggable for as much of the winter as possible. The tubers don’t store well, so are best used fresh. You can harvest them up until they start to resprout in late winter or early spring.
If a friend of yours grows them, ask for a few to try to see if you like them, and if you are able to digest them well. In some people they trigger a flatulence that can range from a light wind to a gastric tornado. If all is well, ask your friend for more, to plant in a suitable outpost of your property. He or she has plenty to spare. Set them a foot or two apart, 4 inches deep.
They might need a little watering and mulching at first, but will soon smother out all weeds. In fact, they will probably be the first crop you have ever grown that requires absolutely no care. Just make sure they know their place.