Jerusalem Artichokes Provide Beauty and Food

      You’ve probably seen Jerusalem artichokes growing in roadside ditches or along trails and not known that there was a delicious edible vegetable growing below ground.  These 6’-9’ tall plants are in the sunflower family and produce bright yellow late summer flowers about 4” in diameter.  The leaves have a rough, hairy texture and range in size from 12” on the lower part of the stem to much smaller as they progress upward.

      The Jerusalem artichoke name is deceptive because these plants have nothing to do with Jerusalem and don’t look like artichokes.  The plant is native to North America and when Italian settlers arrived, they called it “girasole,” the Italian word for sunflower.  Over time, the pronunciation was corrupted to “Jerusalem.”  The artichoke part of the name comes from French explorers who sent the tubers back to France noting that the taste was similar to that of artichokes. 

      The Latin name for Jerusalem artichoke is Helianthus tuberosus.  It has several other common names including sunchoke, sunroot, earth apple, French potato, Canada potato and Canadian truffle.

      The edible part of the plant is the below-ground tuber which looks much like ginger root.  Tubers vary in color from pale brown to red, purple and white.  Tubers grow 3”-4” long and 1”-2” in diameter. 

      Raw tubers have a crispy texture similar to that of water chestnut and a sweet, nutty taste.  When baked or roasted they become soft like potatoes.  They can also be boiled, steamed, microwaved, fried or pickled.  When mashed Jerusalem artichoke is added to mashed potatoes, they add a nutty depth of flavor.

      Information about Jerusalem artichokes rarely appears in books on vegetable gardening, but when it does, they are assigned to the perennial vegetable section.  If the tubers are left unharvested, the flowers will come back year after year and slowly spread. 

      Jerusalem artichokes need be planted just once to supply edible tubers for years.  Choose small, firm, healthy looking tubers.  They should be planted in fall or as early as the ground can be worked in spring in rich, well-drained soil in full sun.  Cut the tubers into pieces leaving an eye in each piece.  Plant them about 4” deep and 12” apart.  In choosing a location, keep in mind that they grow very tall and will shade nearby plants. 

      Tubers are dug in fall after the plants have died down, and can be dug anytime until the ground freezes.  To harvest, cut back the dead growth and use a digging fork to lift the clumps of tubers.  Any stray tubers can be carefully lifted by hand.  Allow some tubers to remain in the ground to ensure a continuous crop.  Some may break in the harvesting process and those should be used first as they won’t store as long as intact tubers.  They can be stored in the refrigerator for several weeks if you aren’t ready to use them right away.

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