Helianthus tuberosus, or Jerusalem Artichokes, are popping up all over the Bluegrass. Though they may look like a tall skinny, sunflower, it is not the seeds that are edible on this plant. The stalks of this plant grow 10 feet tall and 2 inches in diameter, and they have multiple stems leading off from the main stalk. The small yellow flowers make this a beautiful addition to the perennial garden, but its major claim to fame is the edible roots.
Jerusalem Artichokes are native to North America and were commonly grown by Native people alongside their 3-sister gardens (corn, beans and squash grown together in one area). They are a perennial member of the sunflower family, only instead of producing edible seeds, they produce edible underground tubers. The nut-flavored tubers are high in vitamin B12 (an unusual vitamin for a plant to contain), and they are low in starch.
When planting Jerusalem Artichokes, 3 to 4 plants is more than enough for an average family. Choose a spot in full sun, preferably in the back of a garden or perennial bed. These plants can grow very tall and crowd out or shade portions of the garden. When planting, you can plant the whole tuber, or cut it into smaller pieces. Place them 4 inches deep and 2 feet apart in well-drained soil. Mulch well in the winter for protection and to prevent rotting. In early spring look for small emerging green shoots, there will be several from each tuber. The tubers can be harvested in early spring or late fall - there is no difference in the taste. Be sure to harvest only what you will use right away because the tubers do not store well and. Jerusalem Artichokes can be grown in containers as well, but they will require extra winter protection. Do not compost extra tubers! Composting tubers will lead to Jerusalem Artichokes taking over your compost heap.
Jerusalem Artichokes are hardy and drought tolerant. They are pest and disease free, which makes them ideal for organic gardening. They are easily multiplied by harvesting the tubers - like potatoes, you can get several new plants from one tuber. Harvesting the tubers is also a way to control the spread of Jerusalem Artichokes, because new plants will grow from every piece of tuber left in the soil.
Jerusalem Artichokes have an earthy nut-flavor and slightly crisp texture, similar to a raw potato. The best way to eat these delicious tubers is raw, steamed, roasted or baked - boiling the tubers makes them tasteless. You can mix these with other root vegetables and fresh herbs to make a healthy dinner, or you can eat them alone as part of a healthy side dish. To prepare Jerusalem Artichokes for cooking, simply scrub the tuber under running water - there is no need to peel.