It all started innocently enough.
Somewhere I read about this native vegetable that was great for diabetics – or maybe it was that episode of Top Chef where one of the contestants made a sunchoke and spinach puree that the judges just raved about. It could have been an article on easy care perennial vegetables. I honestly don’t remember. Whatever prompted me to grow sunchokes, there’s a few things I need to share with you so you don’t make the same mistakes I did.
What are sunchokes?
Sunchokes are native to eastern North America (see, that sounds harmless, they’re a native species). They are also known as Jerusalem Artichokes or Sunroots. They are not related to Artichokes, they are related to sunflowers. The whole “Jerusalem” thing is supposedly linked to the Italian word girasola, which means sunflower. While they do have pretty yellow flowers, they are grown for their edible roots, which are high in inulin.
Inulin is a type of starch that although not digestible by humans, acts as a prebiotic in the digestive tract, feeding our beneficial bacteria. It’s become a widely use filler in many foods to bump up the fiber counts. (Sounds great, right?) It also increases calcium absorption in the body, and doesn’t spike blood sugar. (See the book “Perennial Vegetables” for all the dirty details.)
Some sources claim that eating a large amount of sunchokes may lead to mild gas for those who are not used to it. I can testify that eating a large portion of boiled sunchokes (that no one else in your family liked) will give you horrible, gut-racking gas like you have never experienced before…well, except for the that one time when you were pregnant and thought it was a good idea to eat prunes, cheese curds and cucumbers in large amounts all at the same time.
The flesh of the sunchoke is crisp like a water chestnut. After a light frost, they take on a somewhat nutty flavor. For my part, they taste best raw after a frost. As a potato substitute, I think they fail miserably. I don’t believe there is any way that sunchoke/spinach dish could have been creamy – there is no creaminess in these roots. Crunchy, yes, creamy, no. Stir fry – yes. Boiled and mashed – plain awful. Roasted, they look a bit like little turds, or perhaps grubs. The Perennial Vegetable book suggests mashing them with potatoes, or using them in soups. If you’re feeling adventurous, there’s a blog devoted to Jerusalem artichoke recipes.
“Easy to grow” and “disease-free through heat and drought” are code words for “You will Never Get Rid of this Plant!”
With stars in my eyes, I skimmed over the note in the Moose Tubers catalog that said “they will spread and may be invasive” and placed my order for one pound of sunchokes. (How bad could they be?) I planted them late in spring, nine rather wrinkled little roots, in one corner of a garden bed. I didn’t think they would all survive. Not only did they survive, they thrived. We tried to harvest the whole patch that first year, but must have missed a few.
The next spring they were back, and they were spreading. We tried to keep up eating them, but the fall was muddy and we couldn’t get into harvest. By the third season, we had the lovely thicket of 12 foot tall flowers you see at the post. As I was digging them in fall, I tossed some damaged roots off into the tall grass away from the garden.
Fast forward to spring. Those root bits haphazardly thrown into the weeds – they’ve now sprouted into plants. There’s a new sunchoke colony. I decide I need to get rid of some of the sunchokes, and invite anyone who would like some to come dig them. Two friends come over. Four different adults attack the patch. Bushels and bushels of sunchokes are hauled out of the garden. The patch size is reduced roughly by half to start the spring.
Time passes. The bed is worked up again by my boys. They remove more sunchokes from the same area that the adults have already gone over.
Before I put the transplants in, I work over the same area one more time. THERE ARE STILL SUNCHOKES COMING UP! This area has been gone over by four adults and two kids, and there are still sunchokes hiding in the dirt.
Here’s the main patch. You can see the smaller outliers in the foreground. That area should be clear.
Here’s a nice, innocent looking sunchoke seedling.
Once we dig it up, we see that this single tuber is trying to regrow an entire sunchoke thicket.
Even tiny pieces, no bigger than the tip of my thumb, can regrow entire large, vigorous plants.
It’s virtually unstoppable. Weeks later, and I’m still digging up shoots from amongst my cabbage seedlings.
I urge you, do not plant sunchokes in a standard garden bed, or field, or anywhere else you might like to grow other plants at some time in the future. You will spend very large amounts of time attempting to remove them if you do. Plant them in their own area, that can be mowed around, to keep them under control. A dwarf variety like “Dwarf Sunray” might even work well in a large container. (I haven’t been able to find these for sale in the US, only on UK sites.) *Note: My neighbor says her horseradish plants are the same way. Plant both at your own risk. Maybe next to each other, to see which one wins.
Sunchokes are reasonably good for you,they look pretty, taste okay, and are quite expensive to buy in many areas, if they are available at all – a “perfect” choice for a new exotic vegetable to try. I just wanted to let you know that you’re likely to have a lifetime commitment with them once they enter your garden. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. 😉
Any other plants you’ve grown that want to take over your garden? Leave a comment to warn other gardeners before they end up fighting them, too. Also, if you could include in your comments roughly what area you are from, that would be great, because some plants will spread in some areas but not in others.