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A Re-acquaintance with Sunchokes aka Jerusalem Artichokes

Growing up, my father loved growing vegetables. He was proud of his produce, always sharing the harvest with friends and neighbors. He would even encourage compliments at the dinner table by saying, “those green beans are really good, aren’t they?” Of course, we quickly responded to the affirmative, lest the question would be posed again. But I must say, the beans were always good, along with the squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, and many other vegetables that came out of his garden.

Dad also loved making different types of relish, and he usually made it around this time of year since it is generally made with vegetables that otherwise have no other use. For instance, he would make chow-chow with the green tomatoes he picked off the vines before the first frost (they became only suitable for the compost pile after the first frost). He would make a pear relish from the fruit of two Kieffer pear trees. And lastly, there was his most-treasured artichoke relish. This stuff was treated with reverence and watched closely at the Thompson dinner table. Dad would be quick to admonish anyone who took more than a heaping spoonful to eat along with their bowl of turnips or collard greens. He would reluctantly bring out a new jar at Thanksgiving, knowing that the crowd of 20 or more would ultimately consume the whole jar at one sitting. And it was treasured for a good reason; it was absolutely delicious.

Sunchokes are native to the Midwest states but have found their way around the world since North America was colonized. The Native Americans used it as an important food source that could be harvested from the soil as needed (the tubers don’t store well). Sunchokes are botanically known as Helianthus tuberosus and are a species of sunflower. The origin of the name Jerusalem artichoke is unknown but is thought to have originated by the Americanization of the Italian word for sunflower, girasole. It has been grown in Europe since it was introduced to France in the early 1600s.

Sunchoke flowers attract pollinating insects in late summer.

Sunchoke flowers attract pollinating insects in late summer.
Paul Thompson, ©2021, Clemson Extension

Sunchokes are planted as tubers in well-drained soil about four inches deep in an area that will receive full sun. The tubers sprout new growth in the spring and grow four to ten feet high. They begin flowering in August/September and die to the ground during the winter. Many consider this plant invasive because they can come back from any tubers left in the ground and colonize a large area, so you should plant them in a confined space or raised bed/large container unless you want them to spread over a large area.

They can be harvested by either digging the tubers furthest away from the stems as needed in the fall through early spring, leaving the tubers close to the stems to regrow the following year. Or you could dig up everything and then replant some of the tubers about 18 inches apart. The second choice will be if you need a large quantity for processing because fresh tubers will only keep in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks. You don’t need to peel the tubers; just use a soft brush and running water to clean them before slicing or dicing.

Freshly harvested sunchokes.

Freshly harvested sunchokes.
Paul Thompson, ©2021, Clemson Extension

The first year’s harvest yielded 70 pounds of sunchokes from two transplants.

The first year’s harvest yielded 70 pounds of sunchokes from two transplants.
Paul Thompson, ©2021, Clemson Extension

The second year’s harvest yielded 50 pounds of sunchokes from replanted tubers.

The second year’s harvest yielded 50 pounds of sunchokes from replanted tubers.
Paul Thompson, ©2021, Clemson Extension

Harvesting sunchokes in November.

Harvesting sunchokes in November.
Paul Thompson, ©2021, Clemson Extension

There are gobs of recipes for using sunchokes. They can be added to salads or used in stir-fry in place of water chestnuts. They can also be roasted, made into chips, added to soups, and of course, made into relish. But, be warned that sunchokes contain an indigestible fiber called inulin. Our gut bacteria do feed on this, but if the right types of bacteria are at low levels, eating a lot of sunchokes at one time may cause gas with some folks. So, eat in moderation, to begin with, until you have built up the right bacteria. Maybe Dad’s control over the relish saved us all from a bad tummy ache.

If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at hgic@clemson.edu or 1-888-656-9988.

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