Tis the Season…

That’s right, ladies and gentlemen and non binary friends – sunchoke (Helianthus tuberosus) season is upon us!

The temperatures here went from “kinda cold” to “bowels of the Artic tundra” in the space of a few days. For the past half a week, the overnight lows have plunged to the mid-20s. In fact our first frost, just four days ago, was a hard freeze. My frost-protection blankets didn’t stand a chance, and anything in my garden that survived that first onslaught of icy air succumbed in the following days.

Well. Freezing temps are just what sunchokes need to convert the starches to sugars in the edible tubers, sweetening the flavor and cutting down on the, ah, musical results of their consumption. (More on that in future posts.)

(Side note: there are other garden vegetables which share this trait of sugar conversion in the face of cold. Apparently the sugar in the plant’s cells prevents water from forming ice crystals which would destroy the cells and kill the plant. I have also heard this claim for wild fruits, such as persimmons (Diospyros virginiana) and frost grapes (Vitis vulpina). I don’t know if it’s true though; my own experience with persimmons certainly hasn’t supported it, and from a biological standpoint, converting starches to sugars in fruit wouldn’t help the plant as a whole survive freezing temperatures. Clearly I need to research this further.)

Pollinators love sunchoke flowers
Pollinators love sunchoke flowers

My little sunchoke patch is my favorite example of reverse foraging, where you introduce the wild plant to your own environment. The local wild sunchokes grow along the road, the creek, or on other peoples’ property. I don’t mind picking fruit in public places (especially pawpaws or walnuts, when they are on the ground), but digging for tubers is too intrusive. Planting them in my yard solved this problem, and made my local pollinators very happy!

Sunchokes also benefit from humans. In the wild, a patch can become overcrowded and begin to die off. Harvesting the tubers gives them the space they need to continue to grow and thrive.

Turns out I apparently didn’t harvest enough tubers last year!

My sunchoke patch is overcrowded
My sunchoke patch is overcrowded

In this photo from September, you can see how the plants in the center of the patch are stunted and lack flowers. In contrast, the ones around the edge look much healthier. Guess where I mainly dug up the tubers? That’s right, from the outside, in an attempt to keep them from escaping their space! As much as I meant to collect them from the center later in the season, it’s quite challenging to harvest them once the ground freezes.

Maybe this year, I will launch a sunchoke adoption program, where for a nominal fee plus postage, I mail a pound of planting tubers to folks who want to enjoy the experience of reverse foraging for themselves!

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