Whenever I read about an invasive garden plant in a seed catalogue, I order one. ‘Invasive’ in Zone 6 means ‘usually produces a crop and/or does not die’ in Zone 3. I went so far as to plant bee balm out in the open, although all catnip, mint, and horseradish plants are contained in pots sunk in the ground. Purple orach, which warns that it will grow 6 feet tall, produces delicious purple spinachy leaves at the expected rate. I WISH it would self-seed. So when I started reading blog post after blog post about how sunchokes had taken over someone’s garden, I decided they were definitely for me!
Sunchokes, aka Jerusalem artichokes, aka fartichokes, are a tuber-producing member of the sunflower family. Even in McCall they reach about 10 feet tall, with one tiny sunflower at the top like an absurd hat. Why are they nicknamed so cruelly, you ask? The carbohydrate in sunchokes is inulin, which is not digestible by you and I. Inulin is also found in garlic, onions, and regular artichokes. It is known to help beneficial gut bacteria, which can digest it, causing a gaseous byproduct in the large intestine. Harvesting after a few frosts gives the plants a chance to start converting inulin back to fructose. I would recommend starting out cautiously and eat a small amount to see how you do. I ate a lot of sunchokes this winter, and I did not live in a cloud of farts.
If you purchase sunchoke tubers they will arrive looking a little like small sweet potatoes but they will probably be a little shriveled. They dry out very easily, so store them in a humid place. Do not be worried about your shriveled tubers though…these are the hardiest plants I’ve ever worked with. Ours sat forever (because everything arrives too early because we’re in the wrong USDA zone), then I planted them in a shallow pan where they intertwined in the worst way possible. They didn’t have a lot of roots, it was just like they all tried to grow to the same place. When it was time to plant them I pried them apart and practically ALL the soil fell off, so much for feeder roots. And then we didn’t really water them (one I planted in AWFUL soil along the fence and basically never watered). And they did GREAT!
Well, the plants did great. We didn’t know if anything was going on underground. We dug two of the plants in late summer to see how they were doing, and got handfuls of little tubers. I have read conflicting reports about sunchokes: some say they are day length neutral, and some say they will not begin tuber production until the days are shorter. We ignored them through several frosts and finally harvested the entire crop the week after our wedding, on October 9th.
We got a crazy amount of tubers! We filled buckets and fruit trays…unfortunately we didn’t weigh the whole crop, but we easily had 4 cubic feet of sunchokes from a single order of seed tubers. The test sunchoke in the rocky, shallow soil along the fence? It produced a little less but still a good amount.
So what does a sunchoke taste like? We love them. When the inulin is high they taste similar to a true artichoke, actually, and they are great in soups. They would probably make an amazing artichoke spinach dip, but for a fraction of the price. When they have a chance to take on a little sweetness (through frosts or long cooking) they are delicious and nutty, with the texture of a potato.
Since we had such a huge harvest we tried every recipe we could find. The pickled sunchoke recipe from Hunter Angler Gardener Cook had too much turmeric flavor for me, but the ‘pickles’ were crisp and we had a few friends happily take home jars after they had a sample. We roasted cubes in bulk and froze them. We found out you can make sunchoke flour, and shredded a few loads to put through the dehydrator. We made about a quart jar,and I’m hoarding the flour. It’s delicious. It’s sweet and nutty, and I just want to use it where you can taste it, like in pancakes or coating halibut. We also gave some away to friends so they could try them.
I made pureed sunchoke soup and I thought it was kind of boring. Baked sunchoke fries are heavenly, and this recipe has a great trick for making them extra crispy. The best recipe might be sunchoke chips…sliced thin and deep fried, then topped with lemon-rosemary salt…we couldn’t stop eating them!
As I mentioned, sunchokes need to be stored at high humidity. When we got down to a crisper drawer full, we cleaned them and put them in the drawer lined with wet paper. They kept extremely well this way, and we continued to use them in breakfast scrambles, roasted, etc, just like a better-flavored potato. I think they would also keep well in damp sand like any root vegetable.
In the middle of last October, I took a handful of small tubers and planted them every 2 feet along the fence. If you’re going to invade, please break up some rocky soil while you’re at it!
We ordered two additional types of sunchokes to try this spring! Maybe we’ll make the harvest last all the way through winter next year!