Other Names sunroot, sunchoke, topinambur, canada potato, earth apple, girasole, tuberous sunflower, lambchoke
Native to eastern North America sunchokes are grown for their tubers, which are eaten as a root vegetable.
It is a tall plant, growing up to 3 meters tall with bright yellow flowers appearing in groups at the very top of the stalk in autumn. Oval leaves are opposite on the lower part of the stem and alternate higher up, also larger closer to the bottom and smaller closer to the top and hairy.
The tubers are gnarly and around 10 cm long generally pale brown but may be whitish or reddish.
The Jerusalem Artichoke is a tasty perennial vegetable.
History and Folklore
Jerusalem Artichoke is a native to North America and is not an artichoke (artichokes are members of the thistle family, Sunchokes are members of the sunflower family). Early settlers first called the plant girasole, the Italian word for sunflower. Apparently this word sounds like Jerusalem. It may also have occasionally been specified as the articiocco (edible) girasole, which sounds similar to artichoke.
The flavor of the root is said to be similar to the flavor of artichokes. But I think it's closer to asparagus with a splash of water chestnut.
This plant was first cultivated by Native Americans who called it Sun Root. It has been propagated for over 500 years. It was "discovered" by Champlain at Cape Cod in 1605 where it was grown by the natives there along with beans and maize. Lewis and Clark were also fed Sunchokes by Native Americans during their trek across the US.
Today this plant is grown in the US for human food, livestock fodder (it is especially loved by pigs), alcohol production and as a source of fructose.
Jerusalem artichokes are very hardy, vigorous growers. Tubers, or chunks of tubers can be planted in spring or autumn in fertile soil in a sunny spot or dappled shade and they will grow like weeds. Mine are planted in a row with part of the row in mostly shade and the other in in part sun. The ones in the shade are considerably shorter than the ones in the sun, but they are all taller than I am and I have to stand on tiptoe to reach the flowers in the part sun plants.
Don't worry if they take awhile to sprout in the spring. They generally make their first appearance in late spring to early summer and look like little baby sunflowers. They should be heavily mulched every autumn. Lack of proper fertilization will result in loss of flavor. That being said, the plants themselves are not picky and will grow in just about any soil. They do not like to grow in places where there aren't significantly defined seasons, however.
Don't be afraid to harvest the first year as each plant produces about 75 tubers. Wait till after the first frost to begin harvesting. If you are going to grow sunchokes, make sure to harvest every year to prevent them from going crazy. Don't worry, it's almost impossible to dig up every tuber, even when you want to. Seeds ripen in November. Best not to let the plant reseed itself (although the birds and squirrels like them). It will spread just fine by tubers, you don't want it in the neighbor's yard too!
Sunchokes don't play nice with other plants. They aren't bothered by weeds and will smother out bedmates. Be careful! These plants can be highly invasive. In fact, it is listed as a noxious weed in Minnesota.
Baby sunchokes are susceptible to slug damage.
Plants can also be started from seeds but will be very delicate their first year. They take up to 17 days to sprout.
Harvesting & Storage
Roots can be dug in the autumn after the plant dies back. For best flavor, wait until after you get a good hard frost before digging up the roots. Store them in a cool place that isn't too dry. Wrapped in plastic in the fridge will do nicely. They will get bitter if kept too long in storage. It is best to leave them in the ground and dig them up as you need them. You can continue digging them right into early spring.
The flowers are pretty and the seeds will attract birds and squirrels and can be used in crafts.
Because it stores its sugar as insulin, which converts to fructose, which is safe for diabetics, Sunchoke is recommended as a potato substitute for diabetics. It does not cause sugar spikes like starch does (in potatoes) and, according to some herbalists (of the Edgar Cayce school) has a healing effect on the pancreas.
A flour can be made of roasted sunchokes and this is recommended for use by people who are allergic to grains.
The tuber's high potassium content needs to be taken into account, however, especially by those with kidney disorders. It has six times the potassium of a banana.
Sunchoke is also said to encourage the growth of natural probiotics, or helpful bacteria, in the gut. This is helpful for people with problems with candida or yeast overgrowth.
It is recommended that sunchokes be added to the diet slowly to allow the body to get used to it. There is also the occasional insulin allergy to watch out for.
Jerusalem artichokes are high in potassium, iron, fiber, niacin, thiamine, phosphorus and copper. Scrub and cut them immediately prior to eating them, as they brown quickly. Do not peel them as most of their nutrients are stored close to the skin.
The tubers can be prepared like potatoes, but tend to get overly mushy when boiled. They are best very lightly steamed or stir fried and some people enjoy them raw in salads. They are crisp and sweet if they've been subjected to cold.
Starch is stored in Sunchoke tubers as insulin which is not easily digestible by humans, so it is a good food for diabetics and dieters who can tolerate it. Some folks have a hard time digesting it and in these folks it can cause gas and bloating. I am told that if you start out with small amounts and get your body used to it, it'll learn to digest it.
Sunchokes have been used in France for wine and beer production.
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