There are food plants that we hear about but rarely see. Some of these, for instance goji berries, have gained fame for their antioxidant properties, while others become noteworthy for some other health benefit. Our climate can support the growth of several of these unique plants.
For years, people have talked about Jerusalem artichokes, but not many local gardeners grow them. This could be because of the name, which can be confusing. Despite its religious sounding name, this member of the sunflower family is not an artichoke, and has never been associated with Jerusalem. Among the many reasons given for this common name is that the tubers (not roots) taste like artichokes.
This is one of the few vegetables that is native to North America. A large number of our most common food plants, such as lettuce, spinach, and onions, evolved in Eurasia, and many favorites, like tomatoes, peppers, potatoes and green beans came from further south - Mesoamerica or Latin America.
As a food, Jerusalem artichokes are quite nutritious, with measurable amounts of several essential minerals and vitamins. They have almost no fat, and one half cup has about 73 calories. In part of Germany, most of the crop goes into production of a type of brandy, which I have never tasted nor seen in any stores.
The tubers can be a substitute for potatoes, since they have a similar texture. They may seem starchy, but are not. Instead, their carbohydrate is in the form of inulin (not to be confused with insulin) a complex sugar that humans metabolize slowly. This is the reason it might be a better choice for people with diabetes. They can be eaten raw or cooked, and the result is a sweeter, nuttier vegetable than potatoes.
Even if it were not a good food, the plant could easily be an ornamental, with flowers that are very similar to sunflowers. It will also grow in many well-drained, fertile soils as long as they are occasionally deeply watered.
Nothing is perfect, however. Jerusalem artichokes are perennials, and prolific. It is rare that the gardener will be able to harvest all that a single tuber produces. One tuber planted in reasonably good conditions can produce up to 200 tubers. The number is usually less — about 75. Even so, this makes it a possible weed in a small garden by creating a thicket of yellow flowers and dense green foliage.
Since it is unlikely that anyone will want to sacrifice an entire raised bed to the Jerusalem artichoke crop, it is a better idea to plant them in a confined area like a small raised bed or a large pot. Unless there is a need for a very large number, the amount produced in a 24” pot will be ample for most households. Tubers can go in during the spring and harvesting will begin in late fall to early winter. Like almost every other plant, these will benefit from a layer of organic mulch like straw, grass clippings or rotting leaves.
Angela O’Callaghan,Social Horticulture Specialist for University of Nevada Cooperative Extension can be reached at 702-257-5581 or by email.