When is an artichoke not an artichoke?
When it’s a sunflower!
Unfortunately a totally inappropriate vernacular is the least of the problems of the Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus).
It has a reputation as a garden thug and according to the gardener John Goodyer, the 17th century gardener and botanist, quoted in Gerard’s Herbal “Jerusalem artichokes: which way soever they be dressed and eaten, they stir and cause a filthy loathsome stinking wind within the body, thereby causing the belly to be pained and tormented, and are a meat more fit for swine than men.”
So we have a plant that is not an artichoke and not from the Middle East but a sunflower from North America with a bad reputation. The misnomer has two apparent sources, a corruption of the European name (girasole) and an assertion from the French explorer, who sent the first samples to France, that its taste was similar to an artichoke. Unfortunately its thuggish reputation is well deserved, as once you decide to grow it, it can be difficult to remove. Even if every small tuber is removed, any remaining tuberous nodules or section of rhizome will produce a nice crop of small shoots the following spring. If you quarantine the bed and keep digging it will eventually disappear but perhaps not before, in despair and desperation, you’ve reached for the glyphosate .
On the positive side, it is easy to grow, disease resistant and will continue to crop well provided that you keep the soil fertile. I grow it in a contained bed between the compost and the rhubarb, with a path on one side and the hedge on the other. It is sheltered from the prevailing winds and can’t escape. Each year I retain a handful of the large tubers for replanting in the spring, although there are always some left in the ground to keep the crop going, and dig in some manure and seaweed. I do nothing else until I start to harvest the crop in December. Unfortunately it has never produced any flowers, but that is possibly because I’m so far north.
As for its reputation for causing flatulence, well that results from the activities of the bacteria which inhabit the human intestines. Jerusalem artichoke tubers store carbohydrate in the form of inulin, rather than starch, which the human digestive system is unable to break down. However, some bacteria can digest it and a diet which contains inulin (also present in other vegetables such as asparagus, leeks, garlic, bananas) is considered by some to help maintain a healthy intestinal biota. The composition of the bacteria found in the human intestinal system varies between individuals and some people are more sensitive than others to the bacterial fermentation of inulin. So some of us can eat Jerusalem artichokes with impunity and others prefer to avoid the discomfort and the risk of embarrassment in polite company. It is probably wise not to over-feed your friendly bacteria with large portions of Jerusalem artichokes, the secret seems to be a little and often.
On the positive side they’re nutritious; rich in iron, potassium and vitamin B1, with a low glycemic index and they aren’t fattening. They have a deliciously nutty, slightly earthy, aromatic flavour and can can be roasted or pan-fried, pureed, baked into a gratin, or used raw (thinly sliced) in a salad. Perhaps the easiest way to start is with a small helping of rich creamy soup. You’ll find a recipe in the Croft Kitchen with some suggestions on how to help ameliorate the side-effects of over active friendly bacteria.