An ancient North American native food
The Americas have given the world many foods that we enjoy daily, however there's a little-known plant that has experienced a surprising rise and fall, and rise again in popularity. Helianthus tuberosus, or the Jerusalem artichoke was most likely the first plant domesticated by North American natives. The more familiar tomatoes, peppers, beans and potatoes were all originally grown in Central and South America and slowly migrated north. The Jerusalem artichoke is native to central North America and spread from there. Since the tubers were easy to transport, the native peoples spread them far and wide across the continent. This unassuming member of the sunflower family produces fleshy tubers that are not only edible but quite healthy and nutritious.
The odd little sunflower that Europeans embraced
First of all, the Jerusalem artichoke has nothing to do with the city in the Middle East and it isn't an artichoke. The Jerusalem part of the name is an English corruption of the Italian name for sunflower; girasole, which in its correct pronunciation sounds a bit like Jerusalem. The artichoke part of the name was coined by the explorer Samuel de Champlain who tasted them and remarked that the flavor was similar to an artichoke. When he returned to France, he brought some tubers with him and since the European climate was perfect for the plant, it was spread far and wide by travelers and merchants. The French loved them and in fact, found a number of uses for the tuber, including wine and beer. By the mid-Seventeenth Century, many Europeans were familiar with the plant and it was used for livestock fodder along with a human food. It was so easy to grow and produced an admirable harvest that the plant fell out of favor with the upper crust of society, since they felt that such a common food should be left to the animals and peasants. The Jerusalem artichoke has experienced several rises and falls in popularity over the centuries and right now, people are re-discovering this unique little vegetable.
Jerusalem artichokes have health benefits
The tubers that this plant produces are high in potassium and iron. It also contains a compound called inulin. Not to be confused with insulin, this is a prebiotic type of fiber that isn't digested in the stomach or small intestine. It moves to the large intestine where it feeds the beneficial bacteria that live there. The inulin promotes healthy bowel function and helps reduce triglycerides, cholesterol and helps decrease fat in the liver. It also helps regulate blood sugar. Another plant that has a similar effect is garlic, however the Jerusalem artichoke contains almost twice the inulin as garlic does. Even so, it isn't advised to run out and add vast amounts of this substance to your diet. The body needs to gradually adjust to the added inulin and if overused, it can produce bloating, adominal pain, excessive flatulance and even diarrhea. Remember that even if a little of something is a good thing, overdoing it can backfire (pun intended) and more isn't always better. Start slow and let your body adjust and as always, consult your health professional before any self-treatment.
Growing Jerusalem artichokes
Jerusalem artichokes are making a comeback in trendy farmer's markets and homesteaders find them an almost care-free crop. They will grow just about anywhere and have few pests. Just remember that this is an untamed plant that can outgrow its boundaries quickly and it is almost impossible to remove them once they get established. Even the smallest piece of tuber will grow roots and turn into a new plant. You, and your children after you and their grandchildren will have these forever, so choose their space wisely. They can be quite aggressive and many people give them their own corner of the property to grow and simply mow any spreaders. The plants grow from between 3 and 10 feet tall and prefer a neutral soil, however they will manage with a pH that falls further up or down the scale. About the only spot they do not tolerate is one that stays wet or boggy. The excess water rots the tubers. Plant in an area that receives at least eight hours of full sun each day. Here are a couple of commercial sources, however an internet search should turn up more if you want. The sunflowers bloom in late summer to early fall and it is best to harvest the tubers after a frost kills the tops. They do not have an extended storage life, so most people leave them in the ground over winter with a layer of mulch and harvest them as needed. You can grow this plant from the small sunflower seeds it produces or the small, wrinkled fleshy tubers. Plant the tubers in loose soil about six inches deep and sow the seeds about a foot apart. You will only have to keep the weeds cleared the first season as the plants will choke out anything as they mature.
Adding Jerusalem artichokes to the menu
Jerusalem artichokes can be eaten either raw or cooked. There are an amazing amount of recipes on the internet using them as a primary ingredient and I'm anxious to try a number of them. They have a similar texture to water chestnuts when served raw and do nicely in salads. Simply scrub them well and slice. They can be chunked, tossed in olive oil, herbs and roasted, or sliced and added to soups and stews. Frost sweetens the flavor and they are often served as a winter vegetable, however they can be dug at any time of year and added to pasta primavera and the dried tubers can be ground and produce a gluten free type of flour. Just remember that until your body adjusts to the higher levels of inulin, start slowly and use in moderation. Even if you can't use all of the tubers, let the patch grow and bloom because Jerusalem artichokes are a wonderful butterfly and pollinator plant and they can benefit from a tasty meal as well.