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Envision this mammoth tipped with yellow sunflowers from late summer into fall. Picture toppling this giant and harvesting its roots for your dinner table following an autumnal frost.
Sound like a dream come true? If so, adding a few knobby Sunchoke tubers to your garden will transform this fantasy into reality.
Growing up in Virginia farmlands, I saw these tuberous sunflowers thriving undomesticated in the fields and ditches all around. I don’t recall ever eating their delicious roots from the wild, but years ago when my mother visited our newly acquired garden in Seattle, she marveled that we were fortunate enough to inherit a large patch of this wild edible, about which she had learned from her own wild-food foraging mother. As it turns out, Mom was wrong with her classification of our lucky strike. What we had inherited is a cousin of the Sunchoke that, unfortunately, does not produce nearly as plump or delicious a tuber. Today, however, we grow both – the Sunchoke as an intentional addition and its cousin as an unfortunate invader we struggle to keep in check. Both provide unparalleled seasonal privacy, height and pollinator forage, but it is only the true Sunchoke (Helianthus tuberosus) – and not its perennial Helianthus cousin – that we harvest for our dinner table.
To source Sunchokes (also known as Jerusalem Artichokes) for your garden, seek out a few roots from which to start your garden. Specialty edible growers, some nurseries, and farmer’s markets may be your best bet for sourcing a few roots. My own plants began from a few stout tubers I saved from my CSA farmer’s delivery. Before you plant, be sure your roots are plump and have not been treated with growth inhibitors, which are used to keep some root crops from sprouting while in storage.
To cultivate your plants, bury the roots in a few inches of soil in spring, and be sure to site your patch with its growth habits in mind. First, these plants get really tall. This year, one we planted in March has already grown as tall as a nearby 18’ Maple – and that’s as of when I’m writing this in August. It still has a few months of growing to do, so we expect it will be looking down on the Maple before the season is through. And, height isn’t the only size to consider. Perennial Helianthus will spread aggressively through its delicious roots. Even if you intend to harvest every tasty morsel from the soil, all it takes is missing a small fragment to create a spreading, choking patch you’ll have difficulty keeping isolated. Once planted, this tough sunflower will grow under just about any circumstances – so long as it has sun. It will happily plug along even in beds you might forget to water on a regular basis.
Toward the end of summer, expect small, yellow sunflowers to form toward the top of your giant stalks. These blooms will feed pollinators and songbirds, but the birdseed that forms isn’t as desirable as the plump seeds that fatten up on its
annual sunflower cousins. Ideally, this plant will focus its energy into creating and fattening up plenty of edible tubers.
Although you can dig up roots earlier in the season, wait to harvest your crop after the chill of autumn arrives and brings a frost. The top growth will begin to collapse – making great fodder for your compost – and the roots will sweeten in the cold. Lift the tubers, dust off soil, and store in a cool, dark location as you would potatoes. If you damage any roots while digging, eat those first as they won’t store well and may ruin the rest of your cellared crops.
Not long ago we began eating more plants that are lower in sugars (carbohydrates). In exchange for delicious, starchy potatoes, we are now thoroughly enjoying the insulin-rich, mildly artichoke-flavored taste of Sunchokes instead. Where a starchy potato may cause blood-sugar problems for diabetics, our bodies don’t readily metabolize the sweet-tasting sugars in Sunchokes. This means they may be a safe alternative for many who are blood-sugar challenged. It also means they can be a little more difficult to digest and may leave you a little gassy. With this in mind, always check with your doctor before adding them to your menus, and eat only a few bites the first time you try them – just to be sure.
In the kitchen, Sunchokes can be cooked in just about any way you would otherwise serve potatoes – roasted, mashed or even fried. At least one chef has suggested they be boiled without peeling, but in my experience, their nubby roots are spectacularly capable of holding onto pockets of dirt, so I suggest scrubbing them well and then peeling them before cooking.
No-Tater, No-Dairy Mashers
2-4 Jerusalem Artichokes, scrubbed, peeled and chopped into 1” cubes
1 Celery root, peeled and chopped into 1-2” cubes
½ cup chicken broth (have a little more on hand just in case)
½ teaspoon sea salt (or to taste)
freshly ground pepper
2-4 T. freshly chopped parsley.
Add chopped roots to a large pot. Add water to cover. Add a dash of salt.
Bring the pot to a boil. Then, reduce to a simmer and cook for about 15 minutes, or until both the Sunchokes and Celery Root are soft but not mushy.
Meanwhile, add chicken broth to a small saucepan and warm gently.
When your roots are soft, drain off the water. Mash with a hand masher, adding just enough warm chicken broth to thin the mixture. (The final mash will be more fibrous than mashed potatoes.)
Add in a dash of pepper and any additional salt to taste. Sprinkle with chopped parsley.
See our Long Storage Crops article for more Sunchoke information.