Jerusalem Artichokes are an ideal crop for small rural farmers

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Jerusalem Artichoke. Picture courtesy Richard Camps Jerusalem Artichoke. Picture courtesy Richard Camps Jerusalem Artichokes are used for human and animal consumption, making them an ideal crop for small rural farmers

Jerusalem Artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus), are also called Sunchokes or Lambchokes. These perennial plants belong to the daisy family and are a species of sunflower. They were cultivated as a food plant by the North American Indians; and today are widely cultivated across temperate regions of the world for their tubers, which are used as a gourmet root vegetable. The quality of artichoke tops makes them a suitable maintenance livestock fodder when used with other staples like alfalfa and maize. It is a most convenient fodder crop for pigs, as they can root up the tubers themselves.

 

Ethanol and butanol, two fuel-grade alcohols, can be produced from Jerusalem artichokes. However, the cost of producing ethanol currently is not competitive with gasoline prices, and, therefore, the success of ethanol plants has been limited.

Jerusalem artichokes are grown for fructose production, and have been used for wine and beer production in France for many years. Fructose is more soluble in water than sucrose, therefore providing a better consistency for syrup’s. In addition, it is 1.5 times sweeter than sucrose and can be consumed safely by diabetics. About 50% of the 12 million tons of sugar consumed annually by Americans is grown and produced in the United States, in the form of maize.  Despite the fact that Jerusalem artichokes are a viable source of fructose, the U.S. sugar industry has been reluctant to utilise it because of concerns about its potential as an invasive weed; and because it requires extra planting and harvesting equipment, and presents difficulties with storage.

Jerusalem artichoke tubers resemble potatoes, except that the carbohydrates composing 75 to 80% of the tubers are in the form of polysaccharide inulin rather than starch, making them extremely beneficial for diabetics. However, in storage, the inulin changes gradually to other starches and should then be regarded as similar to a potato by diabetics.

Inulin, although not digestible by humans, acts as a prebiotic in the digestive tract, feeding our beneficial bacteria.  It’s become widely used as “filler” in many commercial foods to bump up the fibre counts.  Artichokes are antibacterial, antiviral and a good immune booster; and rich in the B vitamins, as well as iron, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus and copper.

People either love, or hate Jerusalem artichokes; so before you decide to grow them, buy some from the veggie shop to try out on your family first. The flesh is crisp like a water chestnut, and after a light frost, they take on a somewhat nutty, sweet flavour, which most people prefer. They can be eaten raw by thinly slicing them and adding them to salads and even stir fries. They are also used to thicken soups and stews; are made into flour and can be pickled. Most sources cite that Jerusalem artichokes can be used as a potato substitute, but because they are crunchy rather than creamy, they do not really taste that great when roasted or mashed, but may be steamed or boiled.

Jerusalem Artichoke Flower. Picture courtesy The Virginia Native Plant SocietyJerusalem Artichoke Flower. Picture courtesy The Virginia Native Plant SocietyJerusalem artichokes are spring and summer growing plants which require a maximum of 140 frost-free days to produce good crops. They thrive in temperate climates which experience frost in winter; and in these regions can become invasive. In warmer, more humid areas they can still be very productive, but are unlikely to persist in the ground from year to year, and will need to be replanted from stored tubers. In tropical zones they can be grown successfully year round by regular replanting, but are best planted at the beginning of the wet season.

The Jerusalem artichoke is a large plant that can grow 2 to 3 meters tall and 60cm wide, with large heart-shaped leaves and bright yellow flowers in midsummer. It is grown as an annual in much the same way as potatoes. The tubers grow about 10cm long and have an irregular shape. Because they are so easy to grow, tolerating both heat and drought, and spreading by any tiny piece of tuber left in the ground, Jerusalem artichokes can spread vigorously and become invasive. For this reason they are not recommended for small properties; and for large properties, plant them where they are isolated from other plants, and where they can easily be contained and kept in check.

Jerusalem artichokes require full sun and prefer light, sandy soil with good fertility, but will grow in most well-drained soils with added compost and a dressing of 2:3:2. They need a good supply of potassium, but avoid high nitrogen fertilisers, or the tops will grow at the expense of the roots. Flowering affects both tuber size and quality, so cut off the flower buds. The tubers are mature enough to use about a month after the formation of the flower buds, but are generally eaten during the winter months. Do not harvest your entire crop, the remaining tubers can be lifted and divided in late winter or early spring for re-planting. Choose only good quality tubers, at least 4cm in diameter with at least 2 eyes or buds.  Large tubers can be cut into pieces as long as they have two eyes. Plant out about 50cm apart.

Jerusalem artichokes are generally disease and pest free but can be affected by stalk borers and fungal diseases like downy and powdery mildew and rust.
Caution: Eating large amounts of Jerusalem artichokes may lead to extreme gas in the gut, for those who are not used to it.  

The information contained within this website is for educational purposes only, recording the traditional uses of specific plants through history. Always seek advice from a medical practitioner before starting a home treatment programme.

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