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Gardening & More: Sunchokes are cool plants

AUTUMN BEAUTY — The sunchoke plant begins flowering in September. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko.
WESTERN NEW YORK — I think that the Jerusalem artichoke, also known as sunchoke, is the coolest plant ever. This is why:

– The sunchoke plant starts out from a root and, in one season, and can grow to be 10 feet tall.

– In September, when other perennials may be done, the sunchoke is just beginning to bloom. This plant adds autumn interest to your garden.

– You can plant and harvest the sunchoke now, giving you the chance to putter in your garden.

– This native plant is very easy to grow and requires almost no maintenance. I watered mine only occasionally, through the hot, dry summer, and it is doing great.

– The sunchoke is also a food plant! Its roots are delicious.

I hadn’t heard of this marvelous plant until I got one, in a plant exchange. Now I’m a big fan.

The plant was originally called the Jerusalem artichoke, but it is not from Jerusalem and it is not an artichoke.

It apparently got the artichoke label because some people think it tastes like an artichoke. I think it tastes like a potato, while others have described it as having a nutty flavor.

This plant is not from Jerusalem; it is native to the eastern part of North America.

The Jerusalem part of the name probably came from a mispronunciation of “girasole,” which is Italian for “sunflower.” The Jerusalem artichoke and the plant we commonly call a sunflower are in the same genus, Helianthus.

Since the name “Jerusalem artichoke” is confusing, people often call the plant a “sunchoke.” That label acknowledges that it is a kind of sunflower and hints at its earlier name.

Now that we have the English name straightened out, let’s take a look at the Latin name, Helianthus tuberosus. The first word tells you what genus the plant is in and the second word lets you know what makes it different from other sunflowers: the tubers.

We eat the common sunflower’s seeds, but, with the sunchoke, we eat the roots instead.

I was skeptical of eating sunchokes at first, because the tubers don’t look appealing. The roots are hard, knobby and misshapen, but don’t let that fool you. They are really yummy.

I sliced mine thin and sautéed it in olive oil, then threw in chopped chives and parsley. My husband sautéed it with onions and garlic. Both versions were delicious.

There are lots of recipes online for roasting the tubers or using them in soup. You can also eat them raw, in salads.

If you have trouble rinsing the dirt out of all the nooks and crannies, cut the roots up, to better reach those areas. There is no need to peel sunchokes.

There is one drawback to this wonderful plant, however. Some people say that the sunchoke causes flatulence. I say, so what? Many people find that garlic, green peppers or beans can make them gassy, but they eat them anyway. Take a walk on the wild side. Eat a sunchoke!

This plant is simple to grow. Dig a hole a few inches deep and plant the tuber. You can plant them now or in the spring; they will winter over. Choose a sunny area.

The sunchokes will grow during the spring and summer and reach their full height of about 10 feet, by September. That is also when they get flowers.

After they flower, you can harvest the roots. They don’t seem to keep quite as long as potatoes do, so if you have several plants, you may want to stagger your harvests.

Leave a few tubers in the ground for next year’s crop. You do not need to plant the largest part of the tuber; all you need is one of the small offshoots. You can eat the large part and plant the small offshoots. If you miss some of the tubers while you’re harvesting (which is easy to do), you will get new plants from those roots, as well.

To receive a free sunchoke bulb, send your name and phone number to info@springvillejournal.com.

Connie Oswald Stofko is publisher of Buffalo-NiagaraGardening.com, the online gardening magazine for Western New York. Email Connie@BuffaloNiagaraGardening.com.
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