Updated: Jul 29, 2020
A Native American staple, once grown all across the US, is now coming back into popularity for many reasons. Let's start with the obvious misnomer this amazing plant has received. To be honest, I have no idea how they came up with the name Jerusalem Artichoke. For one, as mentioned, it is native to America, not Jerusalem. For two, it is not an artichoke! According to the 17th century French explorer, Samuel de Champlain, it bears a similar taste as an artichoke, but it is in fact a tuber.
Jerusalem Artichoke Flowers by famous French painter Claude Monet
I find the history of these plants very interesting, as I had no idea they even existed until recently. Apparently the Native Americans ate sunchokes quite often and planted them all over the continent. As America was settled by non-indigenous people, the sunchokes were eradicated for more"traditional" farming crops like corn or wheat. The Europeans found them as a curiosity and so they have been cultivated and used over seas for centuries. They were almost completely obscure in the United States until just recently they made their way back to their home soil.
The tubers themselves are what you will find marketed as a Sunchoke or Jerusalem Artichoke. They are slightly sweet do to their fructose content. However they are typically used like any other tuber in cooking (ie: potato). Because of their inulin that converts to fructose as they grow, these have been known as a folk remedy for diabetes!
Unlike potatoes, they can also be eaten raw, sliced thinly on a salad, for instance. In their raw form they will have a slightly sweeter, nuttier flavor than if cooked. In 19th century Germany, a spirit was even begun to be distilled from the plant, known as Jerusalem Artichoke Brandy, which carries that same slightly sweet and nutty flavor.
It is important to let the tubers mature before you use them for culinary purposes. If harvested too soon they will have too much inulin, and can cause flatulence and even bad stomach pains.
I was introduced to sunchokes while reading Sepp Holzer's Permaculture, where he uses the crops as pig feed, allowing the animals to forage and dig for the tubers, leaving behind a rich and easily cultivatable ground for new crops. That being said, the wild deer will do the same thing, so measures should be taken to protect the plants if you plan on harvesting them yourself.
You may have already seen these incredible plants and not even known it. They can grow to be almost 10 feet tall! Atop the long stalks are small clusters of bright yellow flowers, almost resembling sunflowers. To plant, simply bury the tubers about 1 1/2" deep in early spring or late fall.
They will proliferate, even in poor soil so typically you will see many close together. It allegedly only takes a tiny sliver of a tuber to grow lots and lots of new ones over a growing season. They have been known to grow at high elevation and will overwinter extraordinarily as well, making them a true High Altitude Homestead staple.