WESTPORT, New York–The Jerusalem artichoke has followed us through- out our sojourns. It is neither an artichoke nor from Jerusalem. Native to the central United States, Helianthus tuberosus is a type of sunflower whose tuberous roots have been eaten for millennia by Native Americans. The name “Jerusalem” is a corruption from the Spanish name for sunflower, “girasol,” but the origin of “artichoke” is hard to fathom unless it’s a reference to the plant’s use as food. It is a perennial plant, 6 to 10 feet tall, which thrives in moist, damp conditions, in sun or partial shade. Where it finds a suitable habitat, it creates great colonies, easily recognized by their mass of yellow-rayed flowers, like small sunflowers, that bloom in late summer before frost.
When we lived in Vermont more than 40 years ago, I recall neighbors from the city urging us to try their front-yard bounty. They lived in a damp hollow where the plants thrived. We declined, but at the time (the late 1960s), the idea of a supermarket in the swamps was very popular, and folks were eating weeds like mad. The craze didn’t last long, though, because harvesting food from the wild takes time to prepare and also tastes, not surprisingly, wild, untamed and earthy — good qualities but not your everyday fare.
Where we lived in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Jerusalem artichokes were often found around old house sites, attesting to their value as a cheap and nourishing food. The sweet-tasting tubers are said to have the food value of potatoes, but their starchy content is in the form of inulin, so they are considered good food for diabetics or anyone on a low-starch diet. For the folks who ate them in the past, settlers and the like, the plant’s main value was its availability and ease of culture, if culture is the right word. Once planted in moist, fertile ground, they need no other care. One of the most memorable snapshots of Jerusalem artichokes I ever saw was in a family album featuring Margaret MacPhail, a woman who in her 80s wrote a fine novel chronicling the folkways on our peninsula. In the grainy 1930s photo, she is holding her granddaughter in her arms in front of a healthy stand of Jerusalem artichokes backed by a Virginia creeper vine, another stalwart native, growing up the front of the house. A perfect pairing of old-time plants favored for their use and beauty.
In the Adirondacks, I first saw Jerusalem artichoke along the back roads that wind along the Boquet River. Through the trees I could see a great swathe of Jerusalem artichokes along the bank, where they found just the right conditions for expanding into a drift of yellow. On the other side of the road, in the ditches, I saw bouncing bet, also known as soapwort (Saponaria officinalis), for the first time in its single form. This old-time plant was brought to the New World by the early settlers who used it as a detergent (all parts contain saponin, a source of suds) and as a medicinal herb. Again, here in the wild was a perfect pairing of plants of use and beauty. Even when their usefulness is no longer appreciated, they live on embellishing our landscape with their colors and untamed beauty (bouncing bet has evening scent, too).
My most recent sighting of Jerusalem artichoke was this fall in a cultivated setting, in the charming village of Essex on the shores of Lake Champlain. There, in front of an early 19th-century house on the main street was another perfect pairing. The veranda was swathed in a wall of Dutchman’s-pipe vine (verandas are still common here and so is the vine, Aristolchia macrophylla), and just in front, filling up one side of the small front yard, was a healthy stand of Jerusalem artichoke, a mass of yellow daisy flowers.
We have yet to eat any, but by all accounts there are many ways to prepare them. First, they don’t store well and are said to have the best flavor after frost. So harvest them and plan to use them right away. They are very knobby, so it’s probably best to trim off some of the knobs first before you wash them. They can be prepared just like potatoes, but most authorities say they become watery when cooked. In reviewing the recipes, I have decided to use them raw, peeled and sliced, and added to fall salad, or I may pickle them. In Stalking the Wild Asparagus (1962), the late wild food guru Euell Gibbons mentions peeling tubers, then boiling them only a few minutes, after which they are covered with wine vinegar and stored a few weeks to cure. There are many recipes to try, most of which begin by parboiling the tubers. Check out your favorite wild-foods cookbook.
Jerusalem artichokes may never be a major food in our diets, but it’s worth experiencing their wild, untamed flavor to remind us of our shared past when food wasn’t that plentiful and people were grateful for common and humble weeds.
Jo Ann Gardner of Orangedale, Nova Scotia, is an herb gardener and writer whose perseverance has produced an oasis in the wilderness.