Friday, 30 September 2011

Sunchokes

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
In a foot-wide bed along one side of my garden grows a line of sturdy plants, six to seven feet tall.

The leaves and stalks look a bit like sunflowers, an impression reinforced in fall when the plants are topped with sparse clumps of bright yellow daisy-like flowers.

They're pretty enough to be just a decorative garden backdrop. They grow tall enough, even in a small space, to make an excellent privacy screen, and grow thick enough to make a decent wind-break for the garden beyond. They don't set seed, so no worry about volunteer seedlings turning into weeds all over the place the next year. Plus they're drought- and cold-tolerant perennials, and easily divided. I like self-sustaining plants.

The leaves will withstand the first light frosts, but die when the winter temperatures drop to a hard freeze. The stalks wither, but if left in place will harden and stand firm throughout the winter, continuing to break the wind, catching and holding the snow.

All in all, by mere appearance and hardiness these plants have earned their place in my garden. But they're not just pretty. These plants are sunchokes, sometimes called Jerusalem artichokes, and they produce food too. Easily dug and pulled, the plants produce tasty tubers at the base. The thin-skinned tubers look a bit like ginger root, and don't need to be peeled. Raw, they have a mildly sweet and nutty flavor, a texture a bit like jicama. Boiled or steamed, they can serve as a starchy substitute for potatoes or turnips, and cook in much less time (bonus - their sugars break down into fructose instead of glucose during digestion, thus making them a good starch for diabetics). I like them sliced across in thick slices and tossed into stir-frys at the last minute as a substitute for water chestnuts, or chopped and toasted and sprinkled atop curries instead of almonds.

The tubers will keep in a bag in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks, and maybe a month in a cool cellar or pantry. But it's even easier to just leave them out in the garden all winter. Freezing weather doesn't bother the tubers. I just pull up plants as needed. I cut the withered stalks down to a few feet after they freeze, to tidy up the garden, then use the shortened stalks to see where to harvest, throughout the winter and spring, and on into early summer.

You might be able to find the tubers in your local supermarket, or they're available through many seed and plant catalogs. Though maybe expensive, you only have to buy them once. There are always a few tubers left in the ground to start growing again in the spring, so plant them in their own permanent bed. Perhaps in richer soil or milder climates they could become invasive, but I haven't had any problems in my dry sandy soils. I'm happy to have found another reliable, hardy, self-sustaining food crop.