By: Mary H. Dyer, Credentialed Garden Writer
Jerusalem artichoke looks much like a sunflower, but unlike the well-behaved, summer blooming annual, Jerusalem artichoke is an aggressive weed that creates big problems along roadsides and in pastures, fields, and home gardens. Jerusalem artichokes weeds are especially invasive along the West Coast and in the eastern United States.
Although the sturdy underground tubers of Jerusalem artichoke are edible and highly nutritious, they make the plant extremely difficult to control. Each plant produces from 75 to 200 tubers in a single growing season, and each tuber is capable of sending out up to six shoots. It’s easy to understand how Jerusalem artichoke weeds create major headaches.
Jerusalem artichoke develops new shoots only on tubers formed the previous year. It may seem logical that Jerusalem artichoke weeds should be easily controlled by simply digging the tubers, but, unfortunately, things are not that simple because locating all of the tubers, which grow on long stolons, is nearly impossible.
A more effective way of managing Jerusalem artichoke weeds is to pull the young plants as soon as they emerge in spring– preferably when they are about 4 to 8 inches (10-20 cm.) tall. If you have a large patch of Jerusalem artichoke or if the plants are sprouting in your lawn, you can mow them down.
Either method works because new tubers are unable to develop without the above-ground shoots. However, total Jerusalem artichoke control requires you to be super vigilant and remove every single sprout.
If your intent is to grow a small patch of Jerusalem artichoke so you can harvest the tubers, the best way to manage the plant is to snip the blooms from the plants before they go to seed. The flowers are attractive and work well in bouquets, so no need for them to go to waste.
When you harvest the tubers in fall, be sure to dig up as many tubers as possible to keep growth in check.
Herbicides should always be a last resort. However, if you’ve tried everything or if the patch is too large to manage by hand, spray the plants with a broad-spectrum product. The herbicide should be applied on undisturbed plants in the fall.
Use the product only according to manufacturer recommendations. Store herbicides out of reach of children and pets.
Note: Chemical control should only be used as a last resort, as organic approaches are safer and much more environmentally friendly.
This article was last updated on
PIJ #54 March – May 1995 page 47
Margaret Lynch explains how to grow, store and prepare the edible section of what is a truly prolific plant.
Helianthus tuberosus is an annual which will tolerate most conditions. Commonly called Jerusalem artichoke, it is known in its native America as Sunroot. Other names include Sunchoke and Suntuber. It is not to be confused with the globe artichoke, Cynara scolymus, which is a thistle with edible flower-buds.
Suntuber foliage is said to be good fodder. Rapid growth makes it an excellent summer shade, screen, or windbreak. It may also have potential in paper-making. The plant produces a substance which inhibits growth in nearby plants, so don’t use the green foliage for mulch.
Plant tubers in early spring, choosing the spot carefully – you plant Suntubers for life! When you harvest them – last year I took four and a half large buckets from a patch one metre square – small ones will be overlooked and grow next year. Don’t put whole tubers in mulch or compost, and remove unwanted plants as they appear. In warm weather, plants will reach one to three metres in a few weeks. Water and feed in moderation. They will produce a crop even if totally neglected. The first cold snap kills the tops. Dig tubers as required. If you have to harvest them all at once, store them in moist sand in a cold place.
For Food: You can feed fresh tubers to pigs and goats, or finely chopped to poultry. As a human food, like many other food plants, they need careful preparation. Some people have no problem digesting them but they are a minority. Over 50 percent of their carbohydrate is in forms we don’t have enzymes to break down. Beans contain 10 to 15 percent of the same substances. These substances need to be leached or converted to make a digestible product.
Refrigerate or cold-store tubers for at least a month, then slice and boil in lots of water for 15 minutes, adding one tablespoon of lemon juice per 1200 mls after 10 minutes, or right at the start if you want crisp tubers. Drain, slip off peel, and pat dry. The slices can then be marinated, pickled, dehydrated, barbecued, roasted, deep-fried, made into soup, pureed and used in pies, cakes, or scones – use your favourite pumpkin recipes, but add less sugar.
If you have a solar cooker, slow combustion stove, crock pot, or are planning a hungi, cook whole tuber for 24 hours in a tightly closed container at 93’C (200’F). Season and serve, or slice and dry for a snack.
Separate tubers that weigh more than 2 ounces from smaller ones that weigh less than 2 ounces. Cut the larger tubers into sections that weigh about 1 to 2 ounces each. Prepare Jerusalem artichokes at planting time to prevent the seed pieces from drying out. Put one section or small tuber in each hole and cover it with soil. Jerusalem artichokes take 10 to 17 days to germinate and emerge from the soil when soil temperature reaches at least 41 degrees Fahrenheit.
Jerusalem artichokes are persistent weeds it may take two years before completely eradicating them from your garden.
Trimming an artichoke is not difficult once you understand the process. Artichokes require just a bit of work after harvest to become edible.
Most seasoned gardeners report that getting these plants started is effortless and hassle free.
The bigger challenge, however, may be in maintaining your patch in a way that keeps these from spreading and crowding out your other plants.
If left to their own devices, Jerusalem artichokes will spread aggressively and voraciously, so it’s good to keep an eye on how they are grown, by giving them a strategic yet supportive outdoor placement.
The nice thing about growing sunchokes: you don’t have to start them from seed. Obtain tubers in the spring from a local farming or gardening store, or seek them out online, to provide the starting “source” of your crop.
It’s better to start with small, younger tubers. Don’t feel the need to get larger ones, as more mature tubers tend to have a harder time with transplant in their older age (though most could still handle it, if necessary).
The “right” spacing depends on how many you wish to produce for your kitchen (or for decoration and enjoyment otherwise, of both the flowers and the tubers).
There’s not a whole lot to manage with Jerusalem artichokes. Since they can become quite tall plants, you will have to make sure the wind, weather, or other factors won’t cause them to topple.
After you’ve planted fresh tubers and the first stalks push up, consider placing even more soil at the base for stability.
The RHS suggests that you add another layer of about 6 inches or so right around the base, either of compost or soil, to keep top-heavy plants from falling over.
Initial baby tubers will need much more watering attention than grown plants. Even then, they don’t need much compared to other high-maintenance plant species and cultivars.
As soon as your patch seems self-sustaining, you can leave the watering up to nature. In droughts and dry conditions, give your plants a little extra watering attention.
Once you have your first round matured and grown, it takes little encouragement to keep them alive and thriving – with mild watering and harvesting only being occasional tasks.
If you’re growing the plant in its native United States, Jerusalem artichokes tend to thrive. Diseases and pests are not a major concern, as they have maintained strong enough wild genetics to easily resist them.
In areas outside the U.S., the plant may not be as resistant. The RHS of the UK reports that slugs, snails, and sclerotinia can be problems.
The biggest reward of growing these sunny plants may just be dining on them – though first you must harvest your cash crop before preparing it for cooking use.
When the first beginnings of cold weather arrive in late fall or early winter, it’s time to grab your spade or shovel and revisit your patch for harvesting. Pulling up these tubers can be not all that different from harvesting potatoes.
Waiting until the arrival of the coldest temperatures in your area may seem a bit strange compared to how you would harvest most other veggies (usually done BEFORE the threat of frost). But Jerusalem artichokes are tough, and you will find in time that cold weather has a surprisingly tasty effect on your culinary experience!
The growing guide from Mother Earth News recommends harvesting after soil temperatures have cooled considerably, for the sake of improving the texture and flavor of the tubers – making fall or winter prime gathering times. Frosts are known to “sweeten up” the plant, as is also the case for wintered or post-frost harvested kale, parsnips, or spinach.
Keeping frosts in mind as having a potentially beneficial effect on your harvests is the best reason for waiting to do any sunchoke gathering until the cold weather arrives. Cold soil and frost greatly improve sunchoke flavor!
Colder climates with frigid winters yield excellent fall harvests, while those with less intense winters can wait until wintertime itself – or even harvest tubers constantly throughout winter as needed, given that the ground is not frozen – and yes, your sunchokes can handle winter harvests well, due to their ingrained natural winter hardiness (a trait that hasn’t been bread out of them through domestication.)
If you want to keep tubers for re-planting, selling, or giving away to plant-savvy friends, hold on to your smaller roots for easier transport and rejuvenation.
Whether for food or future seed propagation, it’s best to store your tubers in a cool, dry place like a fridge or root cellar, in paper bags for optimal dryness.
Don’t want the plants to return next year? If you’re not intent on having more harvests in seasons to come, make sure you are thorough in removing ALL tubers from your plot, even the smallest – or else you can expect robust plants to re-emerge in the spring!
Keep in mind – sunchokes spread prolifically. This is good for storing many yummy tubers, though it’s bad for weed and pest control.
Check all areas of your plot or bed thoroughly, just to be sure that you’ve culled them all, even if you don’t expect that they have spread.
Any plant that is capable of regularly producing between 75 and 200 pounds of vegetables should be highly considered for inclusion on the homestead.
Add into the mix the delicious taste, hardiness, and easy to grow manner of Jerusalem artichokes, and there really doesn’t seem to be any downside to cultivating a big crop of these root vegetable plants.
Sunchokes are recommended for cultivation in USDA Agricultural Zones 3 through 9 – they can thrive almost anywhere. If you live in an area that surpasses the proper heat recommendations, Jerusalem artichokes can still be grown but will likely produce a smaller yield, and should be cultivated in pots that can be moved indoors during the hot weeks of summer.
They are exceptionally drought-resistant plants that can still grow in abundance in even poor soil.
Jerusalem artichokes will simply reseed themselves if left to their own devices, making replanting entirely unnecessary if you allow some of the fast growing and spreading plants to “go to seed”.
If you grow sunchokes along the edge of livestock fencing or inside of a temporary fence that can be opened up in the late fall once all of the grazing pasture is gone, the tubers can be a great source of free feed for a host of common homesteading livestock.
Animals that tend to love the above ground portions of the Jerusalem artichoke plants include goats, horses, sheep, cattle, rabbits, poultry birds, donkeys, and hogs. If allowed, hogs will dig up the tubers and dine on them until they are gone, as well.
Question: How can I tell the difference between wild perennial sunflowers and Jerusalem artichokes? If I eat the root of a perennial sunflower, will I get sick?
Answer: There are distinct but subtle physical differences between perennial sunflowers (Helianthus spp.) and the common Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus), which grows wild across the entire continental United States except for Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico. The bright yellow flower heads of the Jerusalem artichoke are only about 2 inches in diameter and contain 8 to 20 outer yellow flowers (ray flowers) that enclose the dark yellowish-brown center. To be absolutely certain of what you’ve found, you’ll need to identify the other perennial sunflowers that grow near you and then compare them to what you believe is a Jerusalem artichoke.
Either way, perennial sunflowers are indeed edible. There’s a certain cultivar called ‘Prairie Gold’ that some people are now growing, especially those involved in permaculture or wildflower landscaping. Many people don’t find the thick rhizome of the perennial sunflower too enticing, especially because the plant is nowhere near as productive as the Jerusalem artichoke. That said, the plant is not toxic and can be used as food. The flowers make an interesting herbal tea, and the rhizomes can be used any way you might also prepare Jerusalem artichokes. -William Woys Weaver, seed and plant historian