Garden Journal: Actually, it’s not an artichoke and it’s not from Jerusalem
Here’s a little story about an amazing plant with an identity problem.
Commonly known in some parts as the Jerusalem artichoke, it is neither from Jerusalem nor is it an artichoke, and that’s just for starters. There has been quite a bit of speculation about how it got its name.
The most prevalent theory maintains that Sir Walter Raleigh first discovered Native Americans cultivating “sunroots” in what is now Virginia in 1585. When these edible “sunchokes” went back to Europe in the early 1600s, thanks to Samuel de Champlain, it was briefly introduced as the “Canada potato” as well as an artichoke, because of its mild taste. The French referred to the tubers as Topinambur (a term used for an uncouth, uneducated person, by the way), and they began cultivating sunchokes because it was an easy plant to grow and was also good for livestock feed.
Meanwhile, the early Italian settlers who found the plant growing here began calling it simply “girasole articiocco” for artichoke and flower that turns toward the sun. The English settlers may have corrupted the pronunciation of the girasole to Jerusalem and artichoke because that was the word that described the edible bulb. For many years, the Jerusalem artichoke was shunned due to an old wives’ tale linking it to leprosy because the tubers are shaped like the deformed fingers caused by the disease.
To make matters more interesting, the official name for this plant occurred in the 1730s when all things botanical were given proper names and classified by Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus. Thus, the “sunchoke-Jerusalem artichoke-Topinambur” was most recently christened Helianthus tuberosus, and all of its related 200 species were carefully noted. However, it would take years before this news was relayed around the world.
Sunchokes arrived in Germany about the same time in the 1700s and took root almost immediately with the invention of a new alcoholic beverage fondly known in the Black Forest region by the French name “Topinambur,” “Topi” or “Rossler.” By the end of the 19th century, Jerusalem artichokes were cultivated in Baden-Wurttemberg to a 90 percent production for Jerusalem artichoke brandy. It is said that 100 varieties of products were derived from these plants, not only to make alcohol, but in many commercial products such as herbicide and a fructose source.
During World War II, sunchokes and rutabagas were the most widespread cultivated of all vegetables to feed the hungry, giving them the reputation as a poor man’s vegetable. The sunchoke became further ostracized in some areas in the United States, being relegated as a lowly, pernicious weed.
Helianthus tuberosus is often mistaken for the true sunflower and the most common of all, the Helianthus annuus, which is almost identical in the way it grows. They have almost identical small yellow flowers with a cone-shaped central disk and opposite, toothed, hairy stems and leaves, but it has no root tubers.
At first glance, this also looks very similar to its slightly more attractive cousin, Heliopsis, a very popular cultivated sunflower grown for ornamental garden planting. These have similar yellow to orange blooms and sometimes have a double-rayed sunflower. One cultivar, Ballerina, grows just 3 feet tall and is the darling of many formal gardens due to its easy care and long-lasting cut flowers.
Helianthus tuberosus is sometimes mistaken for Sneezeweed, Helenium autumnale. Here is another tallish yellow daisy-like plant that blooms in late summer. But look closely at its petals to see whether they are toothed; the centers are also much larger, more rounded and many are a dark purple color. (Poor Sneezeweed is so misunderstood; it does not make you sneeze but the leaves were once used to make snuff.)
There are 52 species of sunflower from the Asteracae genus, all of which are native to North America. This perennial sunflower is not as popular for gardens due to their tendency to grow 6 to 10 feet tall (or higher) in large clumps, spreading rapidly. It does well in clay soil and could be used as a great background planting if you give them plenty of room. Like all sunflowers, these plants are a primary support for wild birds, bees and butterflies, so use of herbicides and pesticides is not recommended. Use a shovel for removal.
The tubers are gnarled like ginger roots and are typically about 3 inches long. They contain some protein, no oil, and it has a surprising lack of starch. Jerusalem artichokes are said to have an underlying sweet taste because of the fructose, but they mostly taste like water chestnuts. The ones I tasted were bitter, like a parsnip.
To get Jerusalem artichokes with big roots, give plants the longest growing season possible. After the first year, small tubers you missed while harvesting will usually shoot up sufficient plants to form a good crop. Jerusalem artichokes are dug in late fall, at least two weeks after the first hard freeze. Tubers can sometimes be hiding up to a foot deep. To keep plants from becoming invasive, lop off their yellow blossoms in summer and enjoy them as cut flowers. With their flowers removed, the plants will use their late-season energy to grow plump roots instead of producing seeds that will shed all over your garden.
Call it Earth artichoke, earth apple, earth pear, earthshocks, earth sunflower, eternity potato, Indian tuber, Jerusalem artichoke, small sunflower, tuber sunflower, sugar potato, early sunflower, false sunflower or lambchoke, this is one steadfast plant that will grow taller than corn, never gets diseased, and is extremely vigorous and will compete with your worst weeds. This sunflower is completely edible, has bright and beautiful flowers, and attracts songbirds. Combined with a rich history and native origin, you gotta love it.