by Rita Bober
You might have wondered like I did the first time I saw those glorious "sunflowers" growing along the road next to the corn field, or intermingled with the soybean crop: "Wow, isn't it great that 'sunflowers' are growing with the field crops. They look so pretty."
But eventually I found out they were Jerusalem Artichokes (helianthus tuberosus) and that they often form dense stands along roadsides and in garden sites. Jerusalem Artichokes are in the sunflower family but are the only ones with large conspicuous tubers. The plants are easiest to spot in mid to late summer when they may reach ten to twelve feet. They are native to the Midwest and Great Plains area.
Jerusalem Artichokes are a perennial with thick oval, toothed, opposite leaf whorls. The stem is thick and hairy and the roots go deep into the ground to enrich the plant with ground minerals. The flowers are yellow disks surrounded by ten to twenty yellow petals. The part of the Jerusalem Artichokes harvested for food and medicine is the root tuber. The root looks like a small potato and contains "inulin" which is a helpful starchy substance good for diabetics and hypoglycemics. They have fewer calories than potatoes and are especially high in vitamin A and B-complex, potassium and phosphorus. Wait until after the first frost to dig the tubers, as it is their time of greatest food energy. Raw, they are light and sweet but are also great baked in their skins. In general, you can cook them any way you would cook potatoes — though they don't fry up crispy and become creamy when mashed. The tubers range in size from a thick pencil to a large chunky carrot. Dig around the base of the plants with a shovel; the larger tubers often occur on the periphery of the patch. The tubers clean easily by dunking them up and down in a bucket of water or by scrubbing hard with a vegetable brush. They can be kept for several weeks in the refrigerator but are best collected fresh as needed.
If you haven't tried Jerusalem Artichokes, you are missing a local food growing right in our own back yard.
Published in the Michigan Land Trustees Newsletter, Fall, 2007