Are you familiar with Jerusalem artichokes? Perhaps you know them as sunchokes, sunroot or earth apples? Or how about topinambour? We had to look up how to say that one. Apparently topinambour is French for Jerusalem artichoke, and is pronounced: toe-pee nahm-BORE.
Anyway, the “sun” part of the name is derived after the lovely yellow blossoms reminiscent of its cousin, the sunflower. As a bonus, we’ve observed that they are also very attractive to pollinators.
Artichoke Harvest – all shapes and sizes
We had fun doing a quick Facebook live bit on Jerusalem artichokes when Coleman brought in a bucket load of newly dug sunchokes in various sizes and configurations. One in particular resembled a wand according to Devani, our resident “Potter Head” (as in Harry Potter), who grabbed it up and began brandishing it about as if it were the “real thing”.
We went live with her display and threw in some “sunchoke” factoids for good measure. Here’s a bit more.
Heritage and History of Jerusalem Artichokes
The sunchoke, aka Jerusalem artichoke, is a member of the sunflower family, due to the aforementioned sunny yellow blooms. However, Jerusalem artichoke has no known relation to Jerusalem. That moniker is thought to have descended from the Italian word for sunflower, girasole. Over time and across borders, the pronunciation evolved into “Jerusalem”. And while it shares a distant kinship with the actual artichoke via the daisy clan, it is not, per se, an artichoke.
Growing Jerusalem Artichokes
Sunchokes are easy to grow (too easy according to some). With a USDA Hardiness range of Zone 4-9 and a perennial pedigree, they are well suited for a wide variety of habitats. In cultivation, they prefer a neutral (7ish) pH, a fair degree of sun, and space to attain their full measure of up to 10 feet tall and 3 feet wide.
They like a rich, well drained soil, and can survive drought but they thrive better when watered. It takes about 120 to 140 days from planting to harvest. A 5 foot by 5 foot patch can yield 100 pounds plus. 1)http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/vegetables/growing-jerusalem-artichokes-zmaz10onzraw
There are several varieties to choose from based on color, shape, flavor, and sizes. These include the “Red Fuseau” (mentioned above), “Stampede”- highly productive yielding large white knobby tubers, and “Mammoth French White” a late variety that puts on large white, knobby tubers. 2)http://gardening.about.com/od/vegetables/ss/Growing-And-Using-Jerusalem-Artichokes.htm
BTW: Deer Love Sunchokes
We’d lost two entire patches of chokes back in 2014 due to rapacious deer raids on the flowers, leaves and stems. I mean the deer ate our sunchokes to the ground! The chokes tried to come back but the deer kept coming back as well. Eventually the pasture grass and thistles took over.
This year, we found a protected spot right next to a shed wall where we could cordon off the perimeter with tall netting. For planting, a thick weed barrier cloth was laid down first and then topped with a combination of composted leaf material and garden soil. We planted about sixteen tubers, sixteen inches apart. Once the plants were about two feet tall, we covered them with a thick layer of straw mulch to retain moisture and minimize weeds. The bed was only about eight to ten inches deep, and yet, we had a very successful harvest. We’ll add more soil on top of the little tubers we’d left behind, with the expectation that a deeper bed will improve next year’s crop.
And yes, these particular plants can indeed be invasive. The term “choke” easily applies to their astounding ability to take over, particularly in successive growing seasons. Avoid planting in your hugelkultur bed, your perennial border, or anywhere you have the intention of growing other crops. Your discretion is advised. We recommend an isolated spot in the sun. and clipping the flowers as they bloom to avoid seeds spreading.
Another way to handle the prospect of an invasion would be to grow your sunchokes in containers. This will negate the issue of the tubers expanding their hold down below, but to keep the seed from spreading, be sure to harvest the flowers as they appear. For a great article specific to container growing see the SF Gate link reference below. 3)http://homeguides.sfgate.com/grow-jerusalem-artichokes-containers-70991.html
Jerusalem Artichoke Nutrition
The edible root goes great in salads with a crunch like water chestnut and a slight nutty flavor. Our particular variety, an organic “Red Fuseau”, which we got from Amazon last May, has a purplish red skin reminiscent of red cabbage, but still the characteristic white on the inside. The tubers were set in the ground in early June and by the latter part of July, we were seeing blooms right through early September.
Jerusalem Artichoke Health Benefits – Are Sunchokes good for diabetes?
In July of this year, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine released Seven Guidelines for a Healthy Microbiota. Guideline Number 3 recommends we “consume at least 5 to 8 grams of plant-based prebiotics each day. This is easy to accomplish with two cups of leafy greens or a half-cup serving of beans.” Jerusalem artichokes were specifically recommended along with raw dandelion greens, leeks, garlic, asparagus, onions, whole wheat, oats, beans, and bananas.4)https://www.pcrm.org/media/news/microbiota-guidelines Bottom line, sunchokes (in self determined amounts of intake) are good for your inner flora.
Much has been said and claimed about the low sugar aspect of sunchokes, and the fact that they contain no starch but instead a type of sugar known as inulin (Note: not the same as the hormone insulin). This type of fructose is readily metabolized and thus has been recommended by some health practitioners as a suitable food source for Type II diabetics and pre-diabetics. Some have also touted it as a folk remedy for diabetes. 5)https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerusalem_artichoke
It’s not like we just discovered inulin-rich crops as a health enhancing substance. Indigenous peoples, including the Native Americans, have been reaping its benefits for millennia. In North America, the native sunchoke was a significant stable for the Paleo-Indians as well as latter age Native Americans. Noting the value of such a high yield perennial, the European colonists took to cultivating it and sending tubers back to Europe where it took hold as a food source and a livestock fodder crop.
Cultivation of Jerusalem Artichokes
Cultivation of Jerusalem artichokes is straightforward. Being accustomed to Zones 5 through 10 provides a wide range of latitudes. They prefer a rich, friable organic-laden soil that’s slightly alkaline. Note the term “preferred”. They will grow just about anywhere, are drought tolerant, and forgiving of many abuses except too dry and too wet. Plant in the spring after your last frost, look to harvest after the first killing frost or when the tops are dead. We pull up the old canes roots and all which often reveals the larger tubers, then we delve into the dirt by hand (so as not to do injury with a rake or fork). Tubers smaller than a pecan nut are left behind and covered up with soil to produce next year’s crop. We then cover the bed with a 6 inch layer of straw to allow a more even freezing and thawing cycle over our Zone 7A winters.
You may also choose to harvest slowly as the winter comes on and the unfrozen ground allows it, taking just a few tubers as needed. They can also be kept in your refrigerator’s crisper bin bagged in plastic for extended periods.
Another way to handle the prospect of an invasion would be to grow your sunchokes in containers. This will negate the issue of the tubers expanding their hold down below, but to keep the seed from spreading, be sure to harvest the flowers as they appear. For a great article specific to container growing see the SF Gate link reference below. 6)http://homeguides.sfgate.com/grow-jerusalem-artichokes-containers-70991.html
Jerusalem Artichoke Recipes
Recipes for Jerusalem artichokes abound. So far we’ve only enjoyed ours in the raw, in salads, or sauteed in butter with garlic. But now that we have our chokes harvested, bagged, and refrigerated we will experiment with putting them in a stir-fry and a pot of soup. We’re looking at a soup recipe recommended by Jamie Oliver.
As always, we welcome your comments and especially your tried and true recipes for serving up these amazing, if not entirely magical, sunchokes. You can join the conversation on the GardensAll Facebook page and ask questions or share your growing experience.
Cautions in Consuming Jerusalem Artichokes
So having covered what these knobby tubers can do for you, we need to share what they can do to you. As always, we are neither prescribing nor recommending any sort of medicinal application or treatment. That’s the province of your own due diligence and that of your health care provider.
There are many ways to consume sunchokes. Cooking actually brings out more of their nutty flavor. As mentioned in our video, ingesting too many can bring about gastro discomfort, cramps, and gas. Our friends in the UK have dubbed them (aptly or not) “fartichokes”. Apparently, the effects vary from person to person, ranging from totally unaffected to being tethered to the loo for a day. 7)http://www.bonappetit.com/columns/the-foodist/article/do-jerusalem-artichokes-cause-diarrhea
One of our readers mentioned that removal of the skin may alleviate these symptoms. Nevertheless, be forewarned.
G. Coleman Alderson is an entrepreneur, land manager, investor, gardener, and author of the novel, Mountain Whispers: Days Without Sun. Coleman holds an MS from Penn State where his thesis centered on horticulture, park planning, design, and maintenance. He’s a member of the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society and a licensed building contractor for 27 years. “But nothing surpasses my 40 years of lessons from the field and garden. And in the garden, as in life, it’s always interesting because those lessons never end!” Coleman Alderson
References [ + ]