When Jacques Cartier stopped in the little Iroquoian village Stadacona during his second trip to the New World in 1535, on the site where Quebec City would later be established in 1608, he saw vast fields of maize (corn), common beans and squash (which Cartier mistook for millet, broad beans and melons: it must be said that he was not a farmer!).
This part of the story is well known. Who hasn’t heard of the story of these “three sisters” that the Iroquoians grew together on the same mound? But we forget that there were also other plants being grown there: tobacco, for example, which would first be imported into Europe as a medicinal plant and was, in fact, at first considered a cure for nearly all ailments! But also another plant was grown that has taken much more time to make itself better known: the Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus).
Jerusalem artichoke was widely grown by native peoples throughout Eastern North America. Walter Raleigh saw it in 1535 in Virginia, for example, but failed to successfully introduce it into Europe. It was actually a companion of Samuel de Champlain, Marc Lescarbot, who in 1606, seeing the plant growing in Port-Royal (Acadia), brought the plant back to Europe and tried to popularize it. Comparing its taste to that of the artichoke, he called it “truffe du Canada” (truffle of Canada) or even just “canada”.
The name by which we know it today – Jerusalem artichoke – is the result of a longstanding error. Why indeed would a plant from the New World be associated with Jerusalem, in the Old World? That’s because the plant was first successfully introduced to England from Italy where it was called “girasole”, the Italian word for sunflower, and indeed, it is closely related with to the common sunflower (Helianthus annuus). But to the English ear, “girasole” sounded like Jerusalem and it tasted like an artichoke, whence the name Jerusalem artichoke.
You may well see this plant marketed as “sunchoke” in supermarkets, a name given to it by organic farmer Frieda Caplan, in Vista, California back in 1965 when she was trying to promote the tuber as a healthy new food. In the past, it was also known as the Canada potato or the French potato.
A Tuberous Sunflower
The Jerusalem artichoke produces tall stems (up to 7 feet/2.5 m tall!) with oval, pointed, dark green leaves, rough to the touch. Yellow sunflower blooms appear at the top of the plant in the fall… at least in most areas. Many late-blooming cultivars fail to bloom at all in short-season areas like mine. Where I live (Quebec City), the local Amerindian variety, unnamed as far as I know, has escaped culture to grow wild in many areas, yet never blooms at all. However, the lack of bloom does not prevent the plant from producing tubers… and it’s the tubers that make the Jerusalem artichoke so interesting!
In the fall, the Jerusalem artichoke produces a profusion of swollen roots called tubers. They are roughly spindle-shaped: rounded or elongated, depending on the cultivar, but always pointed at one end. They are often bumpy and irregular, hard to clean, although some selections have a smoother shape and are easier to peel. They can have a yellow, brown or reddish skin, but all are white inside.
Unlike the potato, with whom it is often compared, the Jerusalem artichoke has a sweet taste and a crunchy texture, a bit like a water chestnut. Also, unlike the potato, it contains no starch, but instead inulin, a carbohydrate based on fructose. Since type-2 diabetics tolerate fructose better that sucrose, Jerusalem artichoke tubers are said to be good choices for them. Inulin is also said to be excellent for our intestinal flora. On the down side, you should consume the tubers in small quantities at first, until your intestinal flora adjusts to the new food, otherwise they can cause flatulence, leading to the Jerusalem artichoke’s other lessing enthusiastic common name, artichoke. Since the inulin in stored tubers is slowly converted into fructose over time, the tubers become more readily digestible the longer they are stored.
Although Samuel de Champlain himself promoted the “truffle of Canada” to the settlers of New France, they didn’t take the bait. Nor did colonists in the colonies that would one day become the United States. They were deeply suspicious of this Amerindian plant. Their reasoning seems rather outrageous today, but essentially, they believed that if they ate like the “savages”, they risked becoming savages. Hence their reluctance to accept Native America foods. Even corn, common beans, and squash took a long time to become widely accepted and the Jerusalem artichoke never became a staple food.
In France and elsewhere in Europe, on the other hand, it was accepted more rapidly and has long been grown on a fairly large scale. During World War II, when the Germans commandeered essentially all the potatoes produced in mainland Europe, the Jerusalem artichoke saved millions of people from starvation… but for many of those who lived through the war, it remains a famine food, associated with horrible memories, and the older generation is reluctant to eat it. The younger generation doesn’t have that kind of constraint, and the Jerusalem artichoke is now easy to find and even relatively popular in Europe. All that remains to do is to reintroduce this North American vegetable to North Americans!
Extra Easy to Grow
There is probably no other vegetable that is easier to grow in temperate climates as the Jerusalem artichoke. It can literally grow entirely on its own with no care whatsoever!
To get started, plant the tubers in spring or fall about 8 inches (20 cm) deep and about 3 feet (1 m) apart. Full sun or partial shade and well-drained soil, rich or poor, are fine. No maintenance is normally required, except perhaps the occasional watering if the summer is exceptionally dry. (Even if you don’t water, the plant will still survive, although the tubers will be smaller and less numerous.) Sometimes a few leaves are chewed by insects or slugs, but this doesn’t seem to reduce the harvest. Deer and rabbits don’t seem to like the leaves and although voles sometimes nibble a few tubers, it doesn’t really seem to impact the harvest. As for diseases, sometimes the leaves suffer from powdery mildew in the fall, but this has no negative effect on the crop either.
However, a word of warning! The Jerusalem artichoke may well be a vegetable, but it has no place in the vegetable garden. It is a very invasive plant that will soon crowd out other plants. This plant needs a space of its own, far from vegetable gardens and flower beds, maybe surrounded by a lawn so the lawnmower can quickly eliminate stray stems.
Harvest the tubers in the fall, from late September through early December. Ideally, the stems should first undergo a few frosts, as cold weather improves the tubers’ taste. Or you can wait until spring and harvest them when the snow melts: the taste will be even better. In climates where the ground doesn’t freeze, simply consider the garden as a storeroom and dig the tubers as needed, anytime from fall to early spring!
Tubers harvested in the fall can be stored for several months in the refrigerator or in a cold room. Spring-harvested tubers, however, should be consumed without much delay, as they will start to germinate pretty quickly and thus lose their sweetness.
Normally a Jerusalem artichoke plantation will last a lifetime. As you harvest the tubers, you will normally miss a few smaller ones and they’ll quickly grow back, providing the plants for the upcoming season.
Where to Find Jerusalem Artichokes?
You won’t find seed of this plant: you’ll instead need to plant tubers. They are occasionally found in garden centers in the spring. You can also try public markets or supermarkets in the fall. Some companies sell tubers by mail, some shipping in the spring, others in spring and fall. I know of Annapolis Seeds in Canada and Johnny’s Selected Seeds in the United States, but there are many others.
Jerusalem artichokes: the easiest vegetable. Try it and see what I mean!