Sunchokes, an easy survival crop

One of the recent trends in the foodie world (which might have already waned, I never really know) was the use of a confusingly named vegetable: the jerusalem artichoke, aka the sunchoke. The name is entirely misleading, as the plant isn’t in any way an artichoke nor is it from the region of Palestine. It’s a sunflower from North America.

The best explanation of the “jerusalem” part of the name is the Spanish and Italian word for sunflowers: gerisol. Kinda sounds like jerusalem, I guess. The artichoke comes from some folks saying they taste akin to them.

Whatever the case, they’re a really easy to grow perennial vegetable crop to either grow in a garden or harvest in the wild. I’ve grown them for years, and the only work I’ve done since initially planting some is harvesting.

The plant grows a lot like the sunflowers that they’re related to, just with thinner stems and many small flowers. They don’t particularly grow a lot of seeds, since they spread more by tubers. I’ve noticed that bees and other pollinators seem pretty fond of them.

The tuber is the part we’re mostly interested in (though I do love getting a steady supply of cut flowers from them). They grow easily in a lot of soils, but the looser the better. Mostly, sun and a bit of moisture is all they need. I’ve grown them in partial sun and it works okay, but they don’t exactly thrive there.

I don’t always get clusters this big, but it’s always a good haul.

It’s nearly impossible to get all of the root pieces, so unless you excavate or smother the area, you won’t need to replant them. On top of that, I’ve come to the conclusion that the act of harvesting them actively encourages the next year’s harvest, since digging out the roots just loosens the soil for more to grow. In places you’ve harvested each year, it becomes pretty easy to dig them out, or even just pull out a good number of them with the stem.

In terms of cooking, they’re just a starchy tuber. I tend to compare them to a cross between potato and water chestnut, but as I said above some people compare them to artichokes. They can be harvested year round, but for reasons described below I recommend harvesting later in the year.

The main thing to remember is that the starches in them is largely inulin for most of the year, and inulin is harder to digest. It tends to cause gas, sometimes painfully so, hence the nickname I’m partial to ‘fartichoke’. Eating them more regularly seems to make that less of an issue; my understanding is that the microbes in the gut that can better digest them build up.

By the way, a vegetable brush is another essential homesteading tool people don’t mention.

The other strategy is to harvest them after it gets cold and you’ve had a few decent frosts and the above ground growth is all dead. At that point, more of the inulin becomes starch. So, despite the fact that I don’t enjoy digging them out and picking through them when it’s colder and windier, I tend to pull the majority of mine out of the ground in mid or late November. This also helps in keeping them for longer, because unfortunately they don’t store as easily as potatoes or turnips. I’m going to be pressure canning a bunch of mine soon, but I hope to figure out other good methods for keeping them over winter.


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