Native to the United States, Jerusalem artichokes are not from Jerusalem, nor are they artichokes. They are actually edible tubers of Helianthus tuberosus, a 6 or plant in the aster family. Deliciously nutty and full of starch, these large tubers have been eaten by Native Americans for thousands of years. In fact, many of the Jerusalem artichokes that can now be found growing wild were actually planted by Native Americans, possibly many hundreds of years ago. In the summertime, they can grow up to 12 feet tall and have small yellow flowers. This time of year (early spring) they are large brown stalks with small, shriveled brown orbs at the top.
Jerusalem artichoke is an extremely useful plant as you can harvest a relatively large amount of food in a short period of time during any season. The best time to harvest it, though, is between November and March, when the tubers are fully mature but not yet sprouting new growth. The tubers begin to sprout in April and grow tall throughout the summer, but do not grow to full maturity until October or later. During the winter months, the tubers are inactive, just sitting in the cool earth waiting for you to come and dig them up!
Jerusalem artichoke is also one of the only perennial vegetables that grow this far north, so they are a great addition to any permaculture garden. Be careful where you plant them, though, because they spread like wildfire and you will never, ever kill them. They grow well in poor, moist, but well-drained soil. To plant, simply bury some of the tubers in the ground like potatoes. You can dig them up every year but they will always grow back because you can never get every tuber. Also, you may damage some while harvesting, replant those and let them grow for next year.
Although they are wonderful garden plants, you can also find Jerusalem artichokes growing wild in many places. For most wild plants, over-harvesting is a serious issue that foragers need to be knowledgeable and responsible about. However, one of the reasons that I love Jerusalem artichokes so much is that this is not really the case with this species. Sure, we take some of the tubers each time we harvest, but as we do so, we are aerating the soil, making it easier for them to grow next year. We are also leaving many behind, ones that are damaged or that we simply never find. Digging around in the soil, we spread these around and break them into smaller pieces, meaning that for every tuber we dig up, even more are going to grow back next year. If they are in a garden where you want to keep them contained, you have to be careful when harvesting, because even a single tuber dropped or tossed unthinkingly elsewhere will start a new colony of clones, systematically taking over your lawn.
To harvest Jerusalem artichokes, gently dig up a small portion with a shovel and then feel around in the dirt with your hands for the tubers. They can grow two feet deep and two feet out from the plant, so keep looking if you don’t find them at first!
The best way to store Jerusalem artichokes is to just leave them in the ground and dig them as needed. This can be hard in the winter, though, when it is cold and rainy and you’re trying to slap dinner on the table. If you must, you can harvest a bunch of them at once earlier in the season. Do not wash them as this may damage the delicate skin and do not store any that have signs of rot, are cut or broken, or have insect damage. Store them in buckets of soil in a cool place (less than 40 degrees Fahrenheit, if possible). You can then gain easy access to them and wash them as needed.
Jerusalem artichokes are starchy like potatoes, but also nutty and crunchy like a chestnut or radish. They can be eaten raw or cooked and are great both ways. Jerusalem artichokes don’t get as soft as potatoes do, however, so don’t be surprised when they are still a little crunchy after cooking. Fair warning: they contain a large amount of inulin, a polysaccharide that makes certain people pretty gassy. It is fine for most, but it is best to try just a little bit the first time you eat it.
They are great raw on sandwiches or salads. My favorite way to eat them, though, is to fry them in deer fat, lard, or butter with some chopped apple. You can even add sunflower seeds or dried fruit for a nutritious traditional treat. They are also good as hash browns. You can peel them before cooking, but I don’t find it to be necessary.
For more information on Jerusalem artichokes and foraging for other wild edibles and medicinals, visit my blog: stoneaxeherbals.blogspot.com
About the Author: Madeline Gould is currently in her senior year at Sterling College, where she self-designed her major in Agroanthropology. While not doing schoolwork, she often spends hours in the nearby forests, hanging out with her best friends: plants and animals. Madeline is also the owner of a small blog/business, Stone Axe Herbals, where she writes about history, food, primitive skills, agriculture, and herbalism.