(Is Sunday “really” the end of the week though? Or is it the start of the following week? I can’t believe I’ve posted (almost) every Sunday since April 2018, and that question only just occurred to me.)
This week we are discussing Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus), which are not in fact artichokes and do not in fact come from Jerusalem. Rather they are members of the sunflower family; however, rather than edible seeds, the tubers are the parts that are eaten.
Unlike many wild edibles, winter and early spring are the ideal times to harvest Jerusalem artichokes. Winter’s cold actually improves the edibility of Jerusalem artichoke tubers, because the freezing temperatures convert inulin into more digestible simple sugars. Inulin is a non-soluble prebiotic fiber, which is a polite medical way of saying that it may cause serious gastrointestinal eruptions after eating. Collecting the tubers after several freezes is one way to reduce their inulin. Another is to cook them extensively. Using both methods produces the best results. Especially if you have an important business meeting the following day.
Here are photos I took of Jerusalem artichokes back in August of last year. This is an ideal time to locate the plants, because the golden flowers stand out brilliantly against the green foliage.
Because of how tall the plants can get, the flowers manage to peek out from even massive tangles of roadside weeds.
By contrast, here are two photos of Jerusalem artichokes in the winter. They are much harder to recognize, unless you know where the colonies were growing earlier in the fall.
(I guess those are technically seed clusters, not flowers, but you know what I mean!)
These were some of the few stalks I found which were standing upright. The vast majority of stalks are flat on the ground, bent over near the base of the plant.
Luckily even bent over stalks remain attached to ground, giving you a starting point to dig for the tubers. They can be anywhere from 1-4 inches down, and up to a foot away from the stalks, so a dense colony of plants is your best bet for a good haul.
Unfortunately, I have been unable to actually harvest any myself. The weather here in central MD has fluctuated wildly between temps well below freezing and ice storms, and then sunny and highs in the 60s! Which is then followed by rain, and more ice as the temps slide back to “normal” for February. As a result, the ground is variously frozen solid or swampy mud. Neither condition is optimal for digging up tubers.
I have toyed with the idea of planting Jerusalem artichokes somewhere in my yard. Then at least I wouldn’t have to go hunting them when the ground finally thawed enough to dig them up. However, the plants can grow up to eight feet in optimal conditions, which means finding a location where tall flowers – followed by flopping stalks in the fall – aren’t a complete eyesore. Also, Jerusalem artichokes can become a nuisance, as any piece of tuber left in the ground (and there will always be tubers left in the ground) will regrow into new plants the following year. Basically, once planted, you will have Jerusalem artichokes forever. In fact digging up the tubers improves the health of the remaining plants, because it creates additional room for new plants to grow. And they will spread if given the slightest opportunity. Definitely a crop which needs forethought and planning before planting!