Sometimes the earth around us is covered in leaves. Sometimes in snow. Right now, the entire land seems to be covered in Jerusalem artichokes.
This is a good thing. This is food for the body and food for the soul. The golden blossoms have a chocolate scent, and the stalks are strong and make a great privacy screen from the town road. Rabbits run freely here and porcupines (our northern sloth) walk through the deep waves of green to get out of the intense sun of September.
In the fall, we pull up and dig up these plants to get to their rich satisfying tubers. They store remarkably well in a bucket or sack filled with moist sawdust, or even better in a root cellar or fridge. All winter we make soups and stir fries with them. We also bake them and then dip them in garlic butter once they are soft, which does not take very long. They soften quickly in the coals of a woodfire, too, so they are good on a camping trip or cookout. They are low in calories and low in saturated fat. Our guinea pig likes them, too, so we give him a raw one now and then for a treat.
We grow tan Jerusalem artichokes and rosy Jerusalem artichokes. Some people call them “sunroots” or “sunchokes” and just over the border they call them “topinambour. ” Jerusalem artichokes are in the sunflower family and probably got their name from the Italian word “girasole” which means “sunflower.” They may have reminded our ancestors of artichokes because when they are cooked and soft, they have many uses, like artichokes do. They are native to North America and the northeast and could be grown and enjoyed a lot more.
A warning: do not plant them in your garden, as every little rototilled piece will grow into a seven-foot plant. Do plant them in their own patch and mow around them. They will screen a propane tank quickly and give you a thick hedge in two seasons. They are also good under roofs where snow slides off or along driveways that get plowed, for in the fall and winter and spring they go back into the earth. Back into their root tubers, where they store their energy for summer’s fast fling of growth and flowering.
Yesterday, I wanted to go upstairs to have lunch on the deck, and I was surrounded and blocked by a lot of Jerusalem artichokes that were not there earlier. I carefully walked between them, this way and that. They have no thorns, no rough edges, nothing to hurt you with to discourage passage. But I did not want to mar their beauty by crushing them or breaking them. Finally, I made it through triumphantly to the steps! These are strong garden fellows. I have a lot of respect for them now. They go from a small two-inch tuber to an eight-foot sturdy flowering corn stalk-like plant in a few months. Of course, corn does this from a small kernel. But these masterful Jerusalem artichokes do it every year and without me having to plant them or till them or weed them or feed them. A true perennial food.
It is known that in 1816 summer never came to Vermont, as much of the northern areas here and globally, had reduced sunlight. It was just cold from spring to summer to fall and back to winter. Most crops did not grow, or do much of anything. How did the farmers and local people survive? (This was before Shaw’s and food coops and mail order). The people lived on Jerusalem artichokes! A true survival food. Plant some just in case, but pray we never have another winter like 1816. Plant them once and enjoy them as a perennial vegetable and be surrounded by their flowering prowess each September, year after year.
David Fried is a writer, grower and Vermont horticulturist.