Almost every week I drive uptown to the big-box stores to get something we need at home. And frequently during the summer months, I pass a ditch where wild sunchokes grow right along the main road. Often during these drives I think that I should get a shovel, harvest a few and plant them at home in our garden. Certainly they’d stick around. Sunchokes grow like weeds. They take root pretty readily in most soils and as long as they have adequate water, they’ll affix themselves to the spot, no matter how much you dig them out. And in my mind that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
With all the benefits that this plant has, I’m surprised that it hasn’t yet surpassed the potato as the tuber of choice.
Sunchokes like to grow together in colonies. The main reason for this is that the plant grows rhizomatically; that is, the chokes grow from the roots of the plants instead of from the seed. In fact, most folks cut off the flowers after they bloom to stimulate tuber growth. Removed, the flower and the stalks make a great animal fodder. When digging up the tubers, you can harvest them all or you can let some stay in the ground to grow next year. If you take all of them, typically you will still get some chokes next year from roots breaking off in the harvesting process, but leaving some in the soil ensures a bigger colony in the years to come.
The plant is in the aster family, and the flower looks like a mini sunflower :
We can recognize asters by their disk like heads and the fact they are made up of a bunch of tiny flowers. A sunflower, for example, is made up of multiple flowers that bear the seeds we eat. The same with the dandelion. All those fluffy seeds that you blow off the dandelion are each a product of a single minute flower that as a group makes up the dandelion head. So looking at the picture above, the orangish center of the Sunchoke flower is actually made up of a bunch of flowers. Even the “petals” of the sunchoke are themselves flowers that, upon falling off produce their own seed.
Another distinguishing mark of the asters and the sunchokes in particular, are the layered bracts behind the flower head. You can see the green bracts in this picture.
Culture and Uses
The plant is native to America. Native Americans cultivated the sunchoke for its tuber long before Europeans settled here. The other popular name of the sunchoke, Jerusalem artichoke, doesn’t denote the origin of the plant. The “Jerusalem” here is a corruption of the italian word Girsaole which means “toward the sun.” When Europeans first tried the roots they thought that they tasted like artichokes. Hence, Girasole Artichokes became Jerusalem Artichokes.
One of the visionary uses for sunchokes is using them as an alternative fuel source. According to David Blume in his book, Alcohol can be a Gas, “It’s reasonable to expect yields between 550 and 750 gallons per acre.” The Germans also make a liquor from the Sunchoke called Topinambur. Apparently what’s good for the goose is good for the gas tank, or something like that.
We can eat sunchokes raw or cooked. Unlike other tubers, the Sunchokes taste great right out of the ground and need no additional preparation.
Sunchokes are high in inulin and fructooligosaccharides (FOS), two important prebiotics. Inulin and FOS are indigestible by humans, so they bypass the human gut. But they serve as food for good bacteria in the gut and are the common cause of the bloating feeling that some people feel when eating Sunchokes. Inulin is also a great carbohydrate for diabetics, as it doesn’t spike the bloodsugar like other carbs due to its indigestible nature. As Chicory is used to increase fermentation in foods due to its inulin content, I assume that Sunchokes could be used in a similar manner building up the good bacteria even before it’s ingested.
We can use sunchokes in any dish for which we would normally use potatoes. That in itself gives sunchoke a food diversity one up, because it takes the place of a common staple. Many folks eating the Standard American Diet have problems with their blood sugar. Sunchokes might just be the plant that they need to help with blood sugar maintenance.
The fact that the plant spreads so well, doesn’t have to be a nuisance if you harvest them and eat them regularly enough. The fact that they are a perrenial is a boon for the gardener, as the only work after the initial planting is in the harvest. Sunchokes, like other plants in the aster family, can also grow in the shade of the black walnut without incurring the wrath of the walnut’s juglone. Plus the fact that you can use them raw as well as cooked make them more versatile than your ordinary spud.