James And The Giant Jerusalem Artichoke

Sunchoke blossomsThe Jerusalem artichokes in my fields aren’t artichokes, and they’re not from Jerusalem. So what are they? For one thing, they’re a problem I need to solve soon.

Scientists call Jerusalem artichokes Helianthus tuberosa. Helios is Greek for sun, and anthus means flower, so the Jerusalem artichoke is a sunflower that makes a tuber. A tuber is an enlarged, subterranean stem, not a root, with buds that can send out roots, other stems, or leaves. Botanists will tell you that plants evolve a tuberous habit to survive harsh environmental conditions. A tuber can remain alive under an insulating blanket of soil for a long time. When rain finally does come, underground tubers are stimulated to sprout stems and greenery, and the plant grows up into the sun. As conditions get hot and dry again, or freezing cold, the life force of the plant retreats from the foliage back down the stems into the tubers that nest protected in the soil. A tuberous plant stores enough nutrients and water in it’s tissue to survive until the soil warms up and the rain comes.

The sugars and proteins stored in the tubers make many of them valuable crops for people. The potato, for example, is a tuberous member of the Solanaceae, that comes from the Andes, where hot days and cold nights make survival a constant challenge. Potatoes are agriculture’s most commercial tuber, but many other plant families have contributed tuberous crops to agriculture. Anu, or Tropaeolum tuberosum, is an edible tuberous nasturtium from the Andes. Yams, or Dioscorea alata, are tubers from Africa. Oca. Oxalis tuberosa, is a tart, edible oxalis from South America. Some home gardeners in California struggle to overcome the sulphur yellow flowered oxalis weeds that overcome their garden plots. They pull the succulent foliage up by the armful, every spring, but the oxalis always comes back, because it’s re-sprouting from tiny tubers buried deep in the soil. A tuberous habit can be a good adaptation to survive the environmental pressures presented by suburbia.

The French explorer Champlain observed the Indians that he encountered in America cooking Helianthus tubers, and he took them back to Europe. The Italians dubbed the plants ” girasole articocco.” The Italian verb girar means to turn, and sole means sun. Helianthus plants have flowers that turn on their stems during the day so that they’re always tracking the sun, facing east at dawn and facing west in the evening. You can observe this behavior if you pay attention to the common sunflowers in a garden. The English, showing their sensitivity for nuance and that spiritual touch that’s made them such an influence in the Middle East , heard the Italian girasole as “Jerusalem,” and named the plants “Jerusalem artichokes.”

There is a faint rationale to calling the Helianthus tuberosa an “artichoke,” since the flesh of the tuber tastes faintly of artichoke, and both sunflowers and artichoke are members of the Compositae. Plants in the Compositae are distinguished by their flower heads, which are made up, or composed, of many independent florets fused into one apparent common flower head. The face of a sunflower is really the face of a community, not an individual. Lettuces, dandelions, thistles, and radicchio are also composites.

But where the iconic garden sunflower makes one huge head, the Jerusalem artichoke is multi- branched, and makes many small flowers. Helianthus tuberosa will produce seeds, but many of the seeds are sterile. Instead, the Jerusalem artichoke spreads by spreading its tubers underground. In a garden setting Jerusalem artichokes can quickly morph from a crop into a weed if the gardener doesn’t remove every last piece of tuber from the soil. I’m not worried about Jerusalem artichokes infesting my field, because we’ll do a good job on the harvest, and what we don’t get, the gophers will.

What does concern me about my Jerusalem artichoke crop is the sheer volume of bio-mass that we are going to have to hack through to get to the tubers.

Chef James Ormsby standing next to a tal sunchoke plantAfter they flower, the Jerusalem artichoke plants will start to die back. As the stalks wither they take on a hard, fibrous character. It will be easy enough to cut the dry stalks down with machetes, but trying to incorporate the tough, woody stems back into the soil could be like trying to plough an acre of hemp door mats under. The Jerusalem artichokes are just flowering now, so they’ve finished their upward growth, but they’re very tall. Chef James Ormsby came down to visit the field, and the Jerusalem artichokes dwarfed him. I’m 6′1″, and James is much taller than me, but he looks small standing among the Jerusalem artichokes. Some of the plants must be fourteen feet high. I’m thinking of renting or buying a brush chipper, and feeding the stems through it, so that they’re chewed up mechanically and spit out as a mulch before on top of the soil.

Once the plants have died back and the tubers have formed their protective skin, we’ll begin the harvest. There are tons of tubers to dig up and we don’t have enough space in our refrigerator to store them all, but storage won’t be a problem. By their very nature, tubers store well in the ground, so we will leave the Jerusalem artichokes in the soil and dig them up as needed. The tubers we don’t sell we’ll dig up right before they re-sprout in late February, and plant them out in a new patch of ground for our 2008 crop. Which brings me to my last point- by growing some Jerusalem artichokes and propagating my own plants from tubers I save, I can lower my seed costs, which helps me adapt to the sometimes harsh economic conditions I have to outlast.

copyright 2007 Andy Griffin

Photo essay

it includes the following photos:

1. Jerusalem artichokes emerging from the ground in March 2. Jerusalem artichokes in May 3. James and the giant Jerusalem Artichoke 4. Flowering Jerusalem Artichokes

3 Responses to “James And The Giant Jerusalem Artichoke”

  1. 1 Susan Blew

    Hi, Andy -

    Some flowers are tubers too. I grow a giant patch of dahlias which are also tubers. Once in the ground, they will propagate themselves underground and the plant will come back four or five-fold the next summer. However, if we lived somewhere with frost or snow (not in Berkeley) we would have to dig them up and over-winter them in the garage or basement where they would propagate equally well. Once the tuber has propagated, you can cut them into many separate plants, but each must contain an eye (like a potato). The eye looks a little like a pimple on the tuber. Dahlias are a most rewarding plant to grow. Each type (and there are thousands) is unique, the colors spectacular, and the plants bloom fully from June through October.

    Thanks for enlarging my view of tubers. I don’t think I would ever grow Jerusalem Artichokes though. That plowing-up sounds pretty tough!


  2. 2 Carol Hargis

    Imagine my surprise this morning when I received my regular Diamond Organics email and read Andy’s Artichoke story! I’m glad to see your great writing is being well appreciated.
    Carol Hargis, Hudson Valley Subscriber
    & CSA member: The Farm at Miller’s Crossing

  3. 3 Chet

    Hi Andy

    I really enjoyed your article, it was both informative and really enjoyable! Originally from the States, I now live in the UK and have never understood why these tubers are called Jersusalem artichokes and also never felt really confident on how to prepare them — I always wondered what you are supposed to do with them which went beyond the raw vs cooked debate!

    They appear frequently in the organic veg boxes here but rarely do you see them in supermarkets…

    Thank you for filling in the blank about the historic background. I like to think I am eating foods that the Ancestors in the States ate! A bit of home away from home. And I like the way the Brits misinterpreted the Italian!

    All the best to you and the plants and the land…


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