During the summer, a giant found a home in my garden.
Standing tall near the back gate of the house, the green giant reached at least 12 feet in the air — sticking its arms out wildly and looking like it could use a good tidying up. Sure, my giant was unwieldy and perhaps not all that attractive, but it gave me some great treasure for fall.
You see, the giant I’m referring to is named Helianthus tuberosus, a name indeed fitting of such a gnarly looking creature. The giant’s close friends call it sunchoke, though. Not-so-close friends call it Jerusalem artichoke. Whatever name you use, this friendly, tasty giant is gaining popularity in gardens and on farms in much of the area.
The most commonly used name, Jerusalem artichoke, is, quite frankly, misleading. First, the plant does not come from or have anything to do with Jerusalem. It is native to the United States and was, in fact, a favored food of indigenous tribes well before Europeans came to our shores.
There’s a possibility the crop was part of the first Thanksgiving feast. The Jerusalem connection could come from a mispronunciation of the Italian word for sunflower (girasole), or from the Puritans referring to the New World as New Jerusalem. My money is on the Italian story, since we are so good at “Americanizing” words from other cultures.
Secondly, the plant is not an artichoke. Not in the slightest. Artichokes are thistles, just like the thistle weeds you see growing along roads and in fields. Sunchokes are well and truly sunflowers.
Those giant stalks that graced my garden with their lumbering presence this year, finally, well after fall began, produce small, yellow sunflower-like blooms at the very top of the plant.
About the closest the plant gets to being an artichoke is that sunflowers and thistles are both part of the aster family. Some accounts say early explorers thought the tuberous root of the plant tasted like artichokes. I find that a far stretch, but it apparently stuck.
One of the reasons these knobby tubers are beginning to grace gardens, farms and kitchen tables is for their health benefits. When cooked (roasted or boiled), sunchokes have a texture similar to potato, but with a more nutty, earthy flavor.
Despite this similarity, sunchokes are amazingly devoid of starch. Instead of storing their energy in the form of starch, like most plants (especially root vegetables), they convert their sugars into a compound called inulin (not to be confused with insulin).
This inulin is not easily digestible, so many see it as a low-starch alternative to potatoes, which is especially of interest to diabetics. However, everyone should limit intake of this native crop to just small portions.
Because inulin is not digestible, the bacteria in the intestinal tract feast upon it. When they feast, they produce lots of carbon dioxide and other gasses, meaning your social life will take a dive if you eat too many.
You can find sunchokes from some farmers in the area. Most people who produce them are small farmers. The ones I planted were from a CSA (Customer Supported Agriculture) share from Hudson Farms in Pinch last fall.
You can also find them in most garden catalogs if you want to add them to your own garden. If you do grow them, I would suggest putting them in an area where you don’t mind them spreading.
The patch will keep growing year after year — you’ll want to be able to control them. They would make a great natural, tall fence in the summer, too.
My colleague Kerri Wade (families and health agent) and I have a cooking show on the WV Library Network TV channel broadcasting throughout November.
In the show, I talk more about this interesting crop and roast some for Thanksgiving dinner. We also talk food safety when dealing with roasting a turkey and prepare a healthier alternative to pumpkin pie.
If you aren’t in the Charleston/Huntington area (where you can watch it on Suddenlink channel 17), you can stream it at kanawha.ext.wvu.edu/tv or request a DVD copy at your local WV library by name: “Working With You — Traditional Thanksgiving with a Twist).”