Sunchokes are an amazing survival food, and they’re one of those crops you just can’t kill. That means once you establish a sunchoke patch, it’ll be there forever, which can be a mixed blessing. You’ll always have a source of early spring calories, but be careful where you plant them.
What Are Jerusalem Artichokes?
Jerusalem Artichokes are an edible tuber, much like a potato. They come from a tall plant in the sunflower family, that’s not related to artichokes and has nothing to do with Jerusalem. They’re actually native to the United States, and they can be foraged wild in some parts of the country.
The first time I planted Jerusalem Artichoke I just bought a few tubers at my local coop and planted them at the edge of my garden. Big mistake.
I didn’t know anything about growing sunchokes, and I just assumed they must be something like a potato. Nope. Sunchokes are tall, sunflower-like plants that can grow about 8 feet in the air.
They spread by way of their tasty tubers, which divide beneath the soil. Even one tiny piece of tuber means a new plant the following year, and they’re almost impossible to irradicate.
This can be good if they’re planted far from any other cultivated areas. I like knowing that somewhere in our back 40 there’s a patch of sunchokes that will be growing, proliferating and storing tasty calories in case I ever need it.
If you plant them in your garden, they’ll outcompete and shade out just about everything else, and take over the whole patch in a few years.
It’s easier to tell you how not to grow sunchokes than how to grow them. They’re a determined perennial, and sunchokes can be pretty invasive.
The only conditions they can’t tolerate are soggy wet soils that rot the tubers. They’re quite drought tolerant, but they do need some water, and they grow best with a regular supply.
They can grow in poor soils, but they’re much easier to harvest in loose soil.
Plant sunchokes either in the fall, from roots harvested that year or in the spring from spring dug roots. The tubers don’t store well, so it’s best to keep them in the ground until you’re ready to either eat them or dig them up to start a new patch. If planting in the spring, wait until soil temperatures warm to at least 50 degrees.
Once established, any tiny piece of root left in the soil will sprout new plants. Try as you might, it’s impossible to harvest every last one, and they’ll be back again the next year. If you do need to get rid of them for some reason, repeated mowing, every week all summer will do it.
To keep them under control, plant them somewhere that you mow around all sides. They spread by root division, and they’ll sneak out of confinement if they get a chance.
I plan to try growing them in a trash can this year just to keep them contained and I’ll let y’all know how it goes.
Where to Buy Sunchokes
If you’re going to grow sunchokes, you’ll need a source of sunchoke tubers. They can often be found at the farmer’s market or your local food co-op, but lacking that, you can just order them online. A single pound of tubers is enough to establish a patch that will last a lifetime.
How to Cook Sunchokes
So now that you have an endless supply of sunchokes, how on earth do you cook them?
They’re a lot like a potato, with more sweetness. They’re sweetest and most flavorful if harvested after a frost in the fall, or in the early spring. Try them roasted, boiled, pureed into a creamy soup or sliced and tossed in olive oil for sunchoke fries.
Sunchokes are loaded with inulin, which is known as a prebiotic. It’s not digestible by humans, but your gut bacteria go nuts for it.
All in all, it’s great for your digestive tract, but if you’re not used to eating prebiotics, your gut bacteria are going to go nuts and give you some pretty intense gas. If it’s your first time eating sunchokes, be careful and try a small portion.