All About Jerusalem Artichokes!
There is a lot to love about Jerusalem artichokes. These unusually named vegetables are easy to grow, require little maintenance and are native to southern Ontario. In fact, for all you trivia lovers, Jerusalem artichokes are one of only two garden vegetables native to the Great Lakes region, the other is acorn squash. Their popularity has waxed and waned over the past 400 years but these knobby tubers were once an important food source for Indigenous people in the Great Lakes regions.
Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus) are a perennial flower belonging to the sunflower family. While the flower is similar looking to a yellow daisy, they can grow 1.8 – 3m tall and become quite bushy. Although some say Jerusalem artichokes taste somewhat like globe artichokes (Cynara cardunculus), they are two different species. Unlike globe artichokes, where the buds of a thistle are eaten, Jerusalem artichokes, also called sunchokes, develop edible tubers which can be eaten raw or cooked.
Indigenous peoples of North America cultivated this vegetable long before European contact. Not only did they eat the tubers, the oil from the seed of the sunflower head was used for cooking and skin creams. As Europeans began to settle in North America, Indigenous people shared their knowledge of this plant to help them survive the harsh winters in Canada.
What’s in a name?
Like many English words, the name of this plant has very little to do with the actual plant. Some say it tastes like globe artichokes (others claim it tastes like water chestnuts or radishes), so that may explain the artichoke part of the name, but where did ‘Jerusalem’ come from? No one is quite sure, but there are many theories. It could be because the Italian word for sunflower is ‘girasole’, which slowly morphed into Jerusalem. There are also reports of an exhibition held in France in the early 1600s that was attended by Brazilian people from the Topinambous tribe who brought the tubers with them. The tubers were referred to as topinambour as a result. At some point, maybe as the word went from the original native name to the European colloquial name to French to English and back again, it became mistaken for the name Jerusalem. There is also a third theory that the name Jerusalem came from settlers who considered North America the ‘new Jerusalem’. It is a mystery that may never be solved.
Eating Jerusalem artichokes
The tubers from Jerusalem artichokes can be boiled, baked, fried or served raw in salads. Sunchokes are high in iron, potassium and protein. Unlike other tubers, such as potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes contain very little starch. The carbohydrates of this vegetable are instead stored as inulin. Research suggests inulin acts like a prebiotic, improving your immune function, lowering cholesterol and supporting the good bacteria in your gut. Inulin cannot be absorbed in the upper digestive tract, meaning they have a reduced caloric value and do not cause an increase in blood sugars, making them ideal for people with diabetes. Unfortunately, they do have a side effect worth mentioning if you are not a regular consumer of sunchokes. They tend to cause upset stomachs due to fluctuance and potentially diarrhea. This tends to be a temporary side effect until the body becomes used to eating them.
How to grow
Jerusalem artichokes can be planted anywhere in the garden, other than permanently wet areas, but they prefer slightly alkaline soils in full sun. One plant can produce up to 20 tubers, so don’t go overboard planting them in the spring. They don’t suffer from any serious insects or diseases and can become drought tolerant once established. After the first frost the plant will start to die back, at that time harvesting can begin. Some can be overwintered to create new plants next year, but be careful – they have been known to spread to unwanted locations.
Native, easy to grow, and nutritious, Jerusalem artichokes seem like the perfect vegetable!
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