Helpful Herbs: Jerusalem Artichoke
Jerusalem Artichokes, or "sunroot", are a variety of sunflower native to North America which are easy to grow and harvest in your backyard. As a wild plant they flourish across a wide range of zones, and their tuberous roots are prized as a tasty and healthy native food source.
Growing up to 10 feet tall, Jerusalem Artichokes can be started from sections of their root, usually in early Spring. They prefer full sun and well drained soil, and they can spread like wild fire, so it is best to plant a bed dedicated to them. Planted in a larger garden they will often take over if not harvested completely and dead-headed to prevent seed spreading. Regular watering will help to ensure large tubers, and because of their height, be prepared to stake your flowers in later Summer.
The edible part of the Jerusalem Artichoke is the root. To harvest them, dig up the tubers in late Fall as you would a potato plant. The roots can go down to a foot deep, so be careful to harvest thoroughly unless you want them to propagate the next year. Freshly harvested roots can be washed and stored in a cool, dry place.
When considering recipes, think of Jerusalem Artichokes like potatoes. They can be chopped up, seasoned and roasted or skillet fried for a delicious side dish. Eaten with or without the skin, the "sunchoke" tastes similar to potatoes, but with a more "earthy" or "nutty" tone to them. They can be used as a creative alternative to the potato in many recipes, and can even be turned into a savory soup.
The name "Jerusalem Artichoke" actually has nothing to do with Jerusalem or Artichokes. These plants were native to North America, nowhere near Jerusalem. Rumor has it the name came from the Italian "girasole", which means sunflower, being mis-pronounced in English. Another theory claims that the term "Jerusalem" came from the New World being called a "New Jerusalem". The Artichoke part of the name simply came from the nutty flavor of the tuber, which was compared to artichokes by early settlers.
Eating Jerusalem Artichokes is remarkably healthy, and they are noted as a good choice for type 2 diabetics, and used as a remedy for diabetes because their sweetness comes from inulin, a natural sugar that metabolizes slower than other alternatives. These roots are also packed with other vitamins, and are an excellent source of potassium. Unlike potatoes, Jerusalem Artichokes have almost no starch content.
The Jerusalem Artichoke has been cultivated and harvested by Native Americans for over a thousand years. It was a wild flourishing food source that, through trade, quickly spread across the continent. Upon European arrival, the Artichoke was prized for its hardy growth. Brought to France in 1616 by explorer Samuel de Champlain, the root was used during World War II as an easy to grow food source when rationing made potatoes scarce.
Jerusalem Artichokes can also be used as an alternative animal feed and was fermented in the 19th Century to make a German brandy. Also called the "potatoes of Canada" and the "Canadian truffle", these hardy perennials have helped many civilizations through lean times with their prolific roots.
Along with their helpful roots, the "sunroot" produces beautiful small, yellow flowers that will brighten any garden. Remarkably easy to grow and harvest, the Jerusalem Artichoke is a healthy potato alternative with nutty flavor and rich history.