Jerusalem Artichokes, 5 Reasons Why You Should Grow Them

Introduction

What if I told you that there was crop that you only needed to plant once which produces a (in my opinion) better tasting tuber than that of a traditional potato? To further enthrall you, it is more resistant to various pests, can grow in harsh climates, is better for the soil, and in some cases native to an area. This plant/crop may seem like something from a fairy tale, something only obtainable in the story of Jack and the Bean stock or just unobtainable to the average person. You may be asking yourself, “if this crop is so good why don’t they sell it in stores?”. The answer to this question is because no one would make any money if everyone had the ability to grow their own perennial crop (plus they don’t store too well long term out of the ground).

You may be wondering what crop it is that I am talking about, though I am sure if you read the title you are well aware of the topic being presented. I am talking about the wonderful Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus), also known as a sunchoke artichoke, sun root, and earth apple. Although the common name of the plant or crop may allude to it having an origin to the old world, it is actually opposite. The plant is actually related to the sunflower. The plants are in fact both native to North America and were utilized by Native Americans for many generations as a food source.

Jerusalem artichokes look similar to that of a wild sunflower in appearance as they produce small yellow flowers which at first glance seem similar to that of a sunflower. It doesn’t help that Jerusalem artichokes can also grow tall in proper conditions. The obvious key difference being that the Jerusalem artichokes produces tubers, although it should be mentioned that other types of sunflower species also do this. Personally the taxonomy of the sunflower family is a bit confusing, but I haven’t taken the time to dive into the information surrounding the subject. Regardless, the point of this blog is to inform you on the benefits/incentives of growing Jerusalem artichokes due to their ability to come back year after year, overall hardiness to a wide range of temperatures/climates, their ability to potentially attract other native pollinators, the potential to grow these plants into containers, and the fact that these tubers are damn good to eat (at least in my opinion).

1. Perennial

If you are a traditional gardener the idea of planting something once and never having to plant it again may sound like a dream come true or stress you out if you have commitment issues. For me personally, I would love to be able to move towards a more perennial garden to save more time and effort in overall planning and garden maintenance. Beyond the extra convenience and time saved planting, there are many other benefits to planting this perineal crop.

Once established this plant will spread greatly. This increases the overall yield of your harvest, but also ensures that you have a practically unlimited food supply. Imagine having an unlimited source of potatoes that you don’t have to save seed for or go out and buy more seed for at the store. I personally enjoy planting potatoes as you may have read, but you know the saying two is one or so it goes. This can easily replace the potato for you own consumption or help feed livestock for many years to come. There are plenty of incentives outside of food security to planting perennial plants as they help decompress soil and prevent soil erosion that is commonly seen with traditional ag/gardening methods that require tilling or additional amendment of the land.

2. Extremely Hardy

Naturally one of the added benefits of growing a perennial crop is that the plant is extremely hardy once established. If you look into growing these plants and watch a variety of YouTube videos from various creators, you will hear the fear in their voice when they mention growing these in the ground. The general consensus is that they are prolific and will multiple if they go unchecked. Not only do the plants spread by tubers, but they also flower and produce seeds.

The plants develop relatively deep roots and are able to store copious amounts of food/carbohydrates in their tubers which allow them to be quite a resilient plant. They do well in extreme heat and cold, they even tolerate drought well! Because of their ability to reproduce and overall toughness people tend to refer to this crop as an “apocalypse food”. Do note that although the tubers can be prolific if misplaced in the garden, mature plants do not tend to like to be transplanted while developing/green. I tried this a year or two ago and had a poor success rate. Only one of the two plants survived the initial shock and the second one never made another appearance after winter this year.

3. Sometimes Native

You may be asking yourself how I was able to find living plants near me. The answer is that the plant is native to my area. Jerusalem artichokes tend to be native across the Midwest and most of the lower 48 with a few exclusions. I actually recorded a video showing myself harvesting some Jerusalem artichokes if you are interested in seeing that process in the late fall.  Many Europeans have started to grow this crop in Europe and are finding great success, though I have heard that they can be a bit invasive.

If you are in an area where the plant naturally grows, I deeply encourage you to grow these plants in some way shape or form. Incorporating them into your growing space will attract more native insects which in turn improve the overall health of your growing area. 

4. Can Be Grown in Containers

If you aren’t in an area where this plant is native, don’t feel discouraged! I definitely think you should still grow this plant, but make sure to do all that is within your power to prevent the spread or introduction of a potentially invasive plant to your area as this can have long lasting impacts on the land long after you and I are gone. One of the ways you can help prevent this issue is by growing this plant only in a container or raised bed where it can be isolated from the ground soil.

This helps prevent the tubers from spreading or being broken up with a shovel and duplicating. It doesn’t however prevent the spread of seeds, but from what I can read online this really isn’t much of an issue initially. Some people speculate that there needs to be a variety of cultivars present to produce seed, which seems to confuse me. I will try and experiment with the potential seeds generated from my tubers currently growing in my backyard. A benefit to growing in containers is that you can decide to grow different varieties and keep them more organized/segregated for your own personal convenience. I personally do not know a lot of information about the differences in various Jerusalem artichoke varieties in regards to size, quantity or flavor of the tuber. If you plan on growing this plant yourself in a container I would grow them in a 15-20 gallon container or fabric pot at a minimum.

5. They are Good to Eat

Once you let your plants establish to the point that they are able to generate a good clump or cluster of plants within a designated growing area, it is now a good time to harvest the plants in the fall and spring. From there you are able to come by and check out the harvest and difference in taste between the two seasons. The tuber is in my opinion a fresher, crisp potato. I actually do a taste test in the video I linked above if you are curious and would like to give them a try yourself. The USDA even has the nutritional composition of the tuber listed in their website here if you are curious. Jerusalem artichokes are packed with prebiotic fiber known as inulin. There are studies supporting this statement and further elaborate on the potential health benefits found in the wonderful tuber.

Even if you have never tasted a tuber before, I urge you to either find a supplier or just buy a tuber online (I buy mine from Etsy or forage for them as previously mentioned). One tuber or two is usually enough and will provide you the ability to create an infinite harvest in the coming years. Many sellers actually cut their tubers to sell, much like you do when cutting seed potatoes.  

Conclusion

I have now listed five reasons why you would be a fool to not grow the great Jerusalem artichoke. I mean what else could you want from a plant? They are perennial which helps your soil, very hardy, a potential native plant which promotes biodiversity, easy to grow in all circumstances regardless of growing space, and they taste very good, which is always a plus. They even have been shown to help your gut microbiome and may even aid you in losing weight. Regardless, give these guys a taste; throw them in a pot, in the ground, or in a dish. You will not be disappointed!

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