Fields, Forests & Wetlands Foods of Eastern North America
A Complete Wild Food Guide
Jerusalem Artichoke or Sunchoke
Jerusalem Artichoke or Sunchoke. (Clarence A. Rechenthin, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database)
Urban, Rural or Both: Rural mainly, but occasionally within cities
The Jerusalem Artichoke or Sunchoke (Helianthus tuberosus). Also has the names, Sunroot, Topinambour and Earth Apple. It is a great overall food with one potential warning. As it is a plant that stores its energy as inulin instead of starch, for a few people it can cause gas (Ventus transiens) and stomach pains from the gas. Nothing dangerous, but like any new food, start with small amounts and see how well you tolerate it. Inulin is good for people with blood sugar issues, and has many other health benefits such as helping your body absorb calcium.
They seem to be almost everywhere in Eastern North America, and farmers consider them to be a very troublesome weed, although it is cultivated as a crop for the tubers in some areas. They seem to have no diseases or pest issues, at least I've never seen them bothered by anything.
Gather in the fall after the flower dies. Use them quickly after harvesting. Sadly, they don't seem to store very well compared to Potatoes. They will last a week, maybe two, in the fridge in the vegetable drawer. I think that must be the reason they are not more popular as a vegetable. You can cook them, then freeze them. It works well, and if you already have a freezer, and have a good crop, it may be worth the effort to you. Any cooked way will work, but the most efficient I have found is to wash them, put them in a steamer and steam until you can easily pass a fork through them, cool, bag in freezer baggies and put in freezer. No need to peel them.
I have been told you can dig them up in the spring before the plant sprouts, but I can't confirm that - I've never done it.
Don't bother trying to peel the skin, just make sure they are well washed and use. They are nice raw, crunchy and a bit nutty tasting with no negative aspect at all. You can slice them up thinly and put on a salad, boil them and mash them and use like potatoes. If fact, the best advice I can give, is just use them as if they were potatoes when cooking. They can even be made into fries, but they do have a tenancy to fall apart in the oil a bit in my experience. My preferred way is to steam them until soft and serve as a side dish with a little Olive oil, salt and Lemon juice. If you make them mashed, don't add any liquid (often Milk with mashed potatoes), as they are not as "dry" as boiled potatoes.
Growing this plant in your home garden:
If you have a garden where you want a 2-3.5 meter (6-12 feet) tall, late season flowering sunflower, that has no pests and spreads on its own, and produces edible tubers in the fall, this is your plant. If you just leave them year after year, they will produce tubers each fall. However, they will get smaller this way. If you want big ones, you have to dig some tubers up and replant in freshly turned over, loose soil that is rich in nutrients. They will always come up where they have been planted, as you cannot find every little tuber. So make sure where you plant them, you don't mind that they are there forever unless you take drastic, chemical actions.
Also, they will spread. That isn't good sometimes, but it can be great if that's what you want. I find the easiest way to keep it under control is to grow it in a raised garden in the middle of a lawn. Harvest every fall after the flowers die. After harvest, throw on some composted manure, and turn over with a tiller or shovel, then mulch with leaves - you won't hurt them by tilling where they grow. You don't have to do this step, but like I said above, if you don't, they will get smaller as time goes on. Mowing around the garden keeps it from getting away from you - it will try popping up in the lawn around the garden, but mowing regularly keeps it from taking over because it cannot produce tubers where it is regularly mowed. I don't know if it can spread by seed, but in my experience, it only spreads from tubers.
All you do is find some in the fall after the flowers have died, dig up the tubers, and plant them where you want them to come up next year, about four to six inches below the surface of the ground. Mulch a little with leaves the first year, but after that, they don't need any help.
If you can't find any in the wild, find a grocery store or Asian food store that sells them, find a few healthy ones, and plant where you want them. Done.
Growing this plant in your home garden:
For detailed growing instructions, go to my Wild Foods Home Garden website Jerusalem Artichoke page.
- Plant Size: 2-3.5 meter (6 to 12 feet)
- Duration: Perennial
- Leaf Shape: Ovate, coming to a pointed tip. Upper leaves are more narrow compared to their length.
- Leaf Phyllotaxis (Leaf Arrangement) on branch: On upper part of plant leaves are Opposite, on lower part of plant they are Alternate.
- Leaf Size: Up to 30 cm (12 inches) long - usually smaller. Largest leaves near bottom of stem, getting smaller toward the top of the plant.
- Leaf Margin: Unevenly serrated, and often wavy.
- Leaf Notes: rough, hairy feel
- Flowers: Yellow, look like small Sunflowers. 5-10 centimeters (2 to 4 inches) in diameter. 10-20 ray florets
- Tuber: 5-10 centimeters (2 to 4 inches) long. Wild (uncultivated) ones are much smaller than cultivated ones. Where I live, most of them have a tan color skin that makes them look like a bumpy Ginger root. The skin on the tuber can be purple, white, red, or light brown. All the ones I have gathered have been almost white to very light yellowish flesh on the inside.
- Habitat: I think almost anywhere but in water and the desert. Full sun to part shade. Likes the land disturbed.
- Recipe search on the web here (Google search) and here (Bing search).
- Pictures on the web here (Google images) and here (Bing images).
- USDA distribution map and plant profile here.
- The Biota of North America Program (BONAP) distribution map here. BONAP map color key here.
A group of Jerusalem Artichokes growing wild on the edge of a forest in Central Ontario. This picture was taken in late summer. Once the yellow flower dies, the tubers are ready to harvest. Notice the shape of the leaves, as other similar plants have very different leaves. These are about 2 meters (6 to 7 feet) tall.
Jerusalem Artichoke flower. (Jennifer Anderson, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database)
Jerusalem Artichoke leaves and how they attach to stalk. (Robert H. Mohlenbrock, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / USDA SCS. 1991. Southern wetland flora: Field office guide to plant species. South National Technical Center, Fort Worth)
Jerusalem Artichoke drawing. (USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. Vol. 3: 486.)
Jerusalem Artichoke tubers.
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