Jerusalem Artichokes – loved by bees, good to eat, but be warned

The bees love my Jerusalem Artichokes (aka Giisizoojiibik, aka Sunchokes, aka Helianthus tuberosus). They flower in a dense mass of golden daisies swaying on six-foot-plus stems in September through to October, so the late-season bees are all over them. This plant is an important wildlife resource and produces tubers that are nutritious and delicious.

But whenever I’m asked about it, I advise against planting it. That’s because this plant is an imperialist – it spreads implacably through underground rhizomes that produce tubers and the patch soon grows larger than one family can consume. That at least has been my experience. We had some planted next to the rhubarb, a crop one would think could stand up to anything, but the sunchokes moved in and did not have a positive effect. And they kept on moving.

A long time ago, I gave some tubers to two different neighbours who were very keen. I warned them. They insisted. And of course the plant spread out of bounds for them and was considered a nuisance. So I didn’t give it away any more, and I certainly didn’t sell it.

Recently a friend asked me where she could get some Sunchokes, she’d been looking and hadn’t been able to find any. My immediate reaction was, Don’t Do It! If you insist on planting, make sure you contain it, I told her. Define the patch with aluminum siding or some kind of metal from a scrap yard, drop it into the ground making an 18-inch barrier below soil level so the roots cannot get out. This plant would be called invasive but for the fact that it is native to North America and thus cannot be an invader, which has to be from elsewhere. So we call it aggressive.

It turns out my friend has a field that’s not doing much of anything but growing invasive non-native grasses and she has the ideal spot (sunny), as well as the ideal job for Sunchokes: Fill this Space. I’m happy to think of how happy the bees will be because this is a perennial sunflower and, like others in the Helianthus family, attracts many species of bee and other insects, as well as numerous moths and butterflies, for some of which it is a larval host (meaning the caterpillars are able to consume the foliage). The seeds are an important source of food for many birds and small mammals, and large colonies provide cover for wildlife.

It's also a good resource for us. When cooked, the Sunchoke does taste a little like an artichoke, but its name has nothing to do with Jerusalem; it comes from the Italian ‘girasole’ which means ‘turns to the sun,’ or sunflower. The Anishinaabe name for the plant is Giisizoojiibik, or ‘roots of the sun.’ In the book Plants Have So Much to Give Us, All We Have to Do is Ask, Mary Siisip Geniusz writes that her people always liked to have a patch close by, which will continue to grow, year after year, untended.

The best time to harvest is in fall right after the first frost. The tubers are also good if dug in early spring, before the plant starts drawing up nutrients. They can be found when in season at farmers’ markets or farm gate operations. I know of two varieties, one is smooth with a pinkish skin, another knobbly and a yellow skin; they taste the same.

The tubers can be used like potatoes, added to stews and soups. Eaten alone, they can be a little watery, so I like to mash the two together, to get the delicate flavour as well as the more robust potato texture. They’re also good raw. Peel underwater and put immediately into a liquid with vinegar or lemon, as the flesh discolours on exposure to air (though the taste remains fine). Geniusz has numerous recipes for casseroles, soups and salads. There’s one for Jerusalem Artichokes roasted on a wood fire that sounds excellent.

There have been various efforts to boost the plant’s commercial potential. The first came in the ‘60s, with the invention of the name Sunchoke, thought to have more marketing appeal. Many health benefits are claimed – check Dr. Google. In the 1980s, efforts were made to promote Jerusalem Artichokes as a crop that could be used for ethanol, and also a high-protein feed for livestock. The market hadn’t been developed and south of the border, farmers lost money in what was described as a Ponzi scheme. Ideas that were ahead of their time, perhaps. But meanwhile, if you’re a gardener without a lot of space, proceed with caution.
Phyllis
- 4 March 2023 at 09:55am

They are delicious roasted, but be aware, they are high in fibre and cause some unpleasant flatulence.
Muriel
- 4 March 2023 at 02:01pm

Will they grow on the dunes?
Kate
- 11 March 2023 at 07:40am

I've not heard of Jerusalem artichokes growing in sand, but they like good drainage so it might work. They like some fertility so a dressing of compost topped with leaf mould could get them off to a good start
Excalibur and Hijinx
- 1 November 2023 at 03:56pm

great article but for me, i’ll put up the barriers and absolutely love the late color. Wish they came in other colors!!
Chris F.
- 3 March 2024 at 05:09pm

We used to have a fabulous patch of Jerusalem artichokes... but then our sheep ate them all, tubers and all! So after that catastrophe two years ago we just ordered some more tubers to grow inside a fenced yard that our sheep can't reach. It was interesting... that our sheep didn't touch them until late fall before suddenly going crazy for them. Perhaps a lesson learned: if anyone out there has Jerusalem artichokes growing out of control, then just rent or otherwise invite a small flock of sheep over for a few weeks. They do a great job of destroying every last one.
Kate
- 4 March 2024 at 12:14pm

Very interesting!
Linda
- 22 March 2024 at 12:47pm

SAND: all i have is sand, and habitually get fabulous crops from them.
Also I have goats, and they eat them any time they can get them. But I grow them behind fences, and they suck them through, or stand on the fence to reach over and eat the greens as far as they can reach. It distressed me at first, as I thought it would hurt the crop. Not in the least. I later read somewhere it actually improves the rooting, as it keeps it from flowering, thus putting energy elsewhere.
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