Photo and article by Donna Iverson
If you saw them, even close up, you might assume they were sunflowers. Even some experts can’t tell the difference. Before frost, the leaves, stems and flowers of sunflowers and Jerusalem artichokes look almost exactly alike.
But after the first frost, when you dig up the roots, you would find that unlike sunflowers, Jerusalem artichokes have edible tubers. These small tubers look like knotty potatoes but taste more like artichokes. Hence the name. As for the Jerusalem part, it is possible that the Puritans tagged them such in reference to their settlement in the new world which they called the New Jerusalem.
The first written reference to Jerusalem artichokes was recorded by Samuel de Champlain in 1605 when he found them growing on Cape Cod.
The plant may have in fact originated in the Ohio Valley and eventually became a major food source for the Lewis and Clark expedition as they headed west in 1803. Of course, long before the settlers arrived, the Native Americans were cultivating Jerusalem artichokes alongside beans and corn.
As for growing them, not much is required. They thrive in any soil, need very little watering, and are resistant to most harmful insects and plant diseases. Best grown from tubers and not seeds, can find these tubers at your local nursery. Or, order them from the seed catalogs.
Treat the tubers like potatoes because like potatoes, they are considered a root vegetable. They can be baked, boiled or added to soups or stews. Be sure to remove the stringy roots from the tubers as they are toxic. Unless you are an expert forager, best to peel the tubers before cooking. Low in the glycemic scale, Jerusalem artichokes are high in iron and other minerals.
As a landscape flower, they can provide a wind break or just a lush backdrop to your flower bed. They can become aggressive, and are difficult to eradicate once they become established. They grow to a height of 10 feet.
In an emergency or during a food shortage, Jerusalem artichokes could provide a family with a healthy vegetable. The tubers can be left in the ground all winter, and harvested as needed. Personally, I value Jerusalem artichokes more as flower than a food but as I get more and more interested in foraging, that may change.