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Sunchoke Photo Essay



Jerusalem artichokes emerging from the ground in March



Jerusalem artichokes in May




James and the giant Jerusalem Artichoke




Flowering Jerusalem Artichokes

James And The Giant Jerusalem Artichoke

The Jerusalem artichokes in my fields aren’t artichokes, and they’re not from Jerusalem. So what are
they? For one thing, they’re a problem I need to solve soon.

Scientists call Jerusalem artichokes Helianthus tuberosa. Helios is Greek for sun, and anthus means
flower, so the Jerusalem artichoke is a sunflower that makes a tuber. A tuber is an enlarged,
subterranean stem, not a root, with buds that can send out roots, other stems, or leaves. Botanists will
tell you that plants evolve a tuberous habit to survive harsh environmental conditions. A tuber can
remain alive under an insulating blanket of soil for a long time. When rain finally does come,
underground tubers are stimulated to sprout stems and greenery, and the plant grows up into the sun.
As conditions get hot and dry again, or freezing cold, the life force of the plant retreats from the foliage
back down the stems into the tubers that nest protected in the soil. A tuberous plant stores enough
nutrients and water in it’s tissue to survive until the soil warms up and the rain comes.

The sugars and proteins stored in the tubers make many of them valuable crops for people. The potato,
for example, is a tuberous member of the Solanaceae, that comes from the Andes, where hot days and
cold nights make survival a constant challenge. Potatoes are agriculture’s most commercial tuber, but
many other plant families have contributed tuberous crops to agriculture. Anu, or Tropaeolum
tuberosum, is an edible tuberous nasturtium from the Andes. Yams, or Dioscorea alata, are tubers
from Africa. Oca. Oxalis tuberosa, is a tart, edible oxalis from South America. Some home gardeners
in California struggle to overcome the sulphur yellow flowered oxalis weeds that overcome their garden
plots. They pull the succulent foliage up by the armful, every spring, but the oxalis always comes back,
because it’s re-sprouting from tiny tubers buried deep in the soil. A tuberous habit can be a good
adaptation to survive the environmental pressures presented by suburbia.

The French explorer Champlain observed the Indians that he encountered in America cooking
Helianthus tubers, and he took them back to Europe. The Italians dubbed the plants “ girasole
articocco.” The Italian verb girar means to turn, and sole means sun. Helianthus plants have flowers
that turn on their stems during the day so that they’re always tracking the sun, facing east at dawn and
facing west in the evening. You can observe this behavior if you pay attention to the common
sunflowers in a garden. The English, showing their sensitivity for nuance and that spiritual touch that’s
made them such an influence in the Middle East , heard the Italian girasole as “Jerusalem,” and named
the plants “Jerusalem artichokes.”

There is a faint rationale to calling the Helianthus tuberosa an “artichoke,” since the flesh of the tuber
tastes faintly of artichoke, and both sunflowers and artichoke are members of the Compositae. Plants
in the Compositae are distinguished by their flower heads, which are made up, or composed, of many
independent florets fused into one apparent common flower head. The face of a sunflower is really the
face of a community, not an individual. Lettuces, dandelions, thistles, and radicchio are also composites.

But where the iconic garden sunflower makes one huge head, the Jerusalem artichoke is multi-
branched, and makes many small flowers. Helianthus tuberosa will produce seeds, but many of the
seeds are sterile. Instead, the Jerusalem artichoke spreads by spreading its tubers underground. In a
garden setting Jerusalem artichokes can quickly morph from a crop into a weed if the gardener doesn’t
remove every last piece of tuber from the soil. I’m not worried about Jerusalem artichokes infesting my
field, because we’ll do a good job on the harvest, and what we don’t get, the gophers will.

What does concern me about my Jerusalem artichoke crop is the sheer volume of bio-mass that we are
going to have to hack through to get to the tubers.

After they flower, the Jerusalem artichoke plants will start to die back. As the stalks wither they take on
a hard, fibrous character. It will be easy enough to cut the dry stalks down with machetes, but trying to
incorporate the tough, woody stems back into the soil could be like trying to plough an acre of hemp
door mats under. The Jerusalem artichokes are just flowering now, so they’ve finished their upward
growth, but they’re very tall. Chef James Ormsby came down to visit the field, and the Jerusalem
artichokes dwarfed him. I’m 6'1", and James is much taller than me, but he looks small standing among
the Jerusalem artichokes. Some of the plants must be fourteen feet high. I’m thinking of renting or
buying a brush chipper, and feeding the stems through it, so that they’re chewed up mechanically and
spit out as a mulch before on top of the soil.

Once the plants have died back and the tubers have formed their protective skin, we’ll begin the
harvest. There are tons of tubers to dig up and we don’t have enough space in our refrigerator to store
them all, but storage won’t be a problem. By their very nature, tubers store well in the ground, so we
will leave the Jerusalem artichokes in the soil and dig them up as needed. The tubers we don’t sell we’ll
dig up right before they re-sprout in late February, and plant them out in a new patch of ground for our
2008 crop. Which brings me to my last point— by growing some Jerusalem artichokes and propagating
my own plants from tubers I save, I can lower my seed costs, which helps me adapt to the sometimes
harsh economic conditions I have to outlast.

copyright 2007 Andy Griffin

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