Jerusalem Artichoke

♥ The nutty, slightly sweet, decadent and earthy flavour of the Jerusalem Artichoke is a little-known delicacy. We show how easy it is to grow these incredible tubers.

The Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) is a perennial sunflower native to North America. It is also called sunroot, sunchoke, earth apple or topinambour, and is a species of sunflower native to eastern North America, and found from eastern Canada and Maine west to North Dakota, and south to northern Florida and Texas.

The French explorers found American Indians growing them over 300 years ago. The tubers were the size of peanuts but breeding and cultivar selection had improved them to the point where there size is considerable.

It produces knobbly, white-fleshed or the less common, red-fleshed tubers that can be eaten raw or cooked. Better suited to cooler climates, they will grow in even warm places like the Southern United States, although the harvest is likely to be smaller. The taste is that of a nut and similar to globe artichoke in flavour. Some consider it to be the gourmet vegetable and is ideal in soups or as a vegetarian bake.

Planting Jerusalem Artichokes

The tubers grow in just about any soil. Waterlogged soil should be avoided at all costs. That said, they will, like all vegetables, benefit from decent conditions. Improving poor soil before planting with good compost encourages the growth of larger tubers, which will be easier to cook later on. They prefer alkaline conditions, so add lime to raise the pH to around 6.5 if soil is very acidic.

Jerusalem artichokes grow in most conditions, even in shade, but for the very biggest tubers select a well-drained but fertile position in full sun. To be honest, they grow where most other vegetables wont. They are excellent as a winter vegetable and are extremely easy to grow requiring little attention. In fact, they can grow like weeds if left unattended but they do make interesting shade covers for unsightly parts of the garden.

Plant individual tubers 4″-6″ (inches) or 10-15cms deep, 12-18 inches (30-45 cms) apart in early Spring. If you have more than one row, allow 75-90cm (30″) between rows. When they reach about 30cm (12″) high, earth up a little as for potatoes.If they are already sprouting, make sure the shoots are pointing upwards, and be gentle, as they break off quite easily. If you don’t have many tubers, you can cut them into pieces but these must not dry out. Ensure each piece has a bud on it, and plant those.

Growing On Plants

Be careful where you site them, the foliage easily reaches 2 metres and 2.4 metres is common. They stems are quite fragile and you will need to provide support with stakes and string in windy locations. If height needs to be controlled, then chop stems to about 1.2m in summer.

In the autumn, the foliage starts to change colour and should be cut down to about 30cm (12″) above the ground as a marker. You can leave them in the ground to dig as required.

Make sure all the roots are harvested otherwise small plants will continue to grow in the soil. They are quite a productive crop, 3kg from one plant is typical. We have an issue with raised beds where thy have intermingled with rose canes which means all need digging up and the canses replanting.

The sturdy, hollow stems grow tall enough to double as a living screen or windbreak, but unless you specifically want them for this purpose, don’t plant too many. Five is probably ample. Remember, one tuber can produce twenty!

The botanist John Goodyer was quoted in Gerard’s Herbal of 1621. “Which way soever they be dressed and eaten, they stir and cause a filthy loathsome stinking wind within the body, thereby causing the belly to be pained and tormented, and are a meat more fit for swine than men”.

With this wonderful impression of such a vegetable, we are reminded that the Jerusalem Artichoke is a fabulous vehicle for dietary fibre. The presence of inulin which we have mentioned in other articles is a fine prebiotic irrespective of the gale-force winds it can generate. The vegetable is relatively low in calories compared to others with a high sugar content.

Cultivars:

Generally sold unnamed which is surprising but buying them from the greengrocer or supermarket is a simple enough option. Most varieties are white-fleshed but Gerard has pink skin and a smoky flavour. You are unlikely to find any other variety on sale in the grocer except for Gerard which is lower yielding but said to have a superior flavour. In the States, French Mammoth White offers large yields. In the UK, Fuseau is popular because it’s smoother-skinned than the others  whilst in the USA, Golden Nugget and American are also smoother.

It’s worth seeking out a short stemmed variety called Dwarf Sunray. Being a bit more compact, with more flowers, it’s better suited in the flower bed and its tubers don’t require peeling.