Grocery Store Gardening: Jerusalem Artichoke
I love finding new plants to grow while grocery shopping. Here is an unusual vegetable I have been eyeing for a number of years. It is a native North American plant. It grows naturally from Canada to Northern Florida and from the East Coast through northern Mississippi headwaters and south through Northern Texas. This temperate plant has been a food plant of the American Indians for ages. In fact, there is some confusion as to how much this plant naturally colonized the country and how much can be attributed to Native Americans planting new colonies where they traveled and lived.
A Bit of History
An early recorded proponent of this tuber was Samuel de Champlain. In 1605 he found some growing in domestic gardens on Cape Cod and sent samples to Europe where it quickly became a popular food crop for both humans and livestock. As the popularity grew in Europe this food crop began to lose popularity in the United States. It has been gaining some renewed interest in recent years. Jerusalem Artichokes can be found in natural food stores and farmer’s markets. There is even some new interest in restaurants where it is a novelty component of specialty dishes.
There is much debate about the name. Some call this Sunchoke. It can also be called Sunroot or Earth Apple. Many in Europe call this plant Topinambour. The Jerusalem Artichoke is believed to be a vulgarization of girasole which is Italian for sunflower. There are others who believe that it is a result of the Pilgrims calling their new home New Jerusalem. Most of Europe calls this plant Topinambur because when the root was first introduced at the Vatican a member of a South American Indian tribe known as Tupinamba was visiting. These are the most common explanations for various names of this plant.
Some Uses for Jerusalem Artichokes
This plant is important to Eastern Europe where a distilled beverage called Topinambur is produced. It is estimated that in some parts of Germany that close to all harvested Jerusalem Artichokes is turned into liquor. It is a livestock food in other locations.
There is a renewed interest in Sunchokes that go beyond culinary concerns from the production of alcohol. It is because inulin, a type of carbohydrate that stores the plant energy in the root, that new research is being conducted. Humans can not directly digest inulin. The same and other bacteria that can digest the inulin in our bodies produce ethanol. Ethanol is a fuel additive. This significantly increases the value of Sunchokes. Sunchokes grow everywhere under a wide range of habitats which makes this an easy to grow bio material for Ethanol production plants.
Sunchokes will grow in heat and drought. They will grow even in some shade. They do not require fertilizer. They reproduce like crazy. Some farmers who have experimented with this have found that it is difficult to eradicate once it has been introduced into a planting field. Special herbicides need to be applied to control re-emergence of Sunchokes in future years.
This is one reason one may want to grow Jerusalem Artichokes in special garden locations. Like bamboo it is best grown in an area where a mower can be used to control spread. Repeated mowing is the best and easiest way to contain the spread. One source counted nearly 200 tubers at the end of a season from just a single tuber planted in the spring. This seems a bit extreme and a stretch to the imagination. Still the more fertile and friable the soil the faster the spread. Use extreme caution planting this in a normal vegetable or flower site. You may never be able to completely eradicate this invasive plant.
The best way for a small gardener to grow these is in a large container. A 10 gallon container may be as small as you will want to use. You will want a container that is at least a foot deep. Even then, periodic inspection against runners escaping will be prudent. Consider the spreading habit as well as a general plant height of 4 to 9 feet and one can see the need for a heavy large planting container.
This relative of the annual Sunflower grows optimally under similar conditions. A rich organic media with plenty of water will yield increased harvests. Plant your tuber so it is a couple of inches below the surface. They don’t need to be planted too deep. Sometimes the tubers will grow on top of the soil like an iris. The rounded end is generally the growing end. I look for small feeder roots and choose to plant the tuber so the feeder roots point down. Jerusalem Artichokes are so easy to grow that if you get them upside down or even just a bit deep they will still grow.
Concerns, Uses and Suggestions
Using a screen to harvest all the tubers is recommended. Even a small piece will root and grow next spring. Be sure to screen for tubers where the removed soil can be completely reclaimed. This will reduce unwanted step children. Screening will uncover more tubers than visual inspection.
As mentioned this root vegetable has a form of carbohydrate known as inulin that is not directly digestible in humans. However, the bacterial colonies that live and digest most of the food we eat will turn the inulin into usable nourishment. This is why some people experience bloating and flatulence when eating this food. Severe distress has been reported in some who ate too large an amount the first time. Bacterial digestion releases considerable gas as a by-product. Do not eat much of this vegetable until you have tried a small amount first.
This root vegetable is high in iron and zinc and some other beneficial minerals. It can be eaten raw or stewed or roasted. Some peel this when used in a soup or stew. A modern popular method of eating is to fry in oil to make chips. Slice these on a mandolin to produce uniformly thin slices and turn halfway through frying. You will find a slight Artichoke flavor. This was part of the description passed on by de Champlain and others which became part of the name. The chips should be eaten soon after frying.
Storing roots is the same as one would for any root vegetable. Store these in soil until needed. This will keep the tubers from dehydrating until you want to eat them. About once a month slightly moisten the soil. It doesn’t take much water to keep the tubers from dehydrating. Often I forget and they are just fine as long as they are covered with soil.
Rediscovering native food crops is an important concern today. We are missing so many of the foods we once used to eat. These foods grew easily in areas we lived. They were easy to care for as well as good producers. Now is a good time to try Sunchoke. Do be sure to try just a small amount to begin with. Some people have experienced extreme discomfort from eating too much when first trying them. If nothing else they are a joy to enjoy with the bright yellow flowers that bees love. And, we found this new plant in the grocery store. What could be more fun.