A sunflower with an image problem

Jerusalem artichoke
Ferdinand Vietz, Icones Plantarum 1800-1822

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.

9 thoughts on “A sunflower with an image problem

  1. [D] We too have a bed of Jerusalem Artichokes, and it’s always in early January that we start digging up one third of the bed, taking most for cooking, a selection of the best tubers put aside for replanting in a few weeks time, after heavily composting the cleared third. We usually use Jerusalem Artichokes for soup. The other day I made soup with just the artichokes, some onion, a dash of olive oil, and a pinch of salt. Absolutely delicious. And, by the way, used fresh, no flatulence. (That reputation has stuck to several vegetables, but in our opinion it is due to the relative staleness of the product, the sugars having turned to starch, and quite possibly other healthy attributes lost too.)

    • Vegetables are at their peak nutritional value when freshly harvested, so garden to plate is always best. The biochemistry of the inulin is complex and affected by both time of harvest and storage. In late harvested tubers there is a higher level of sugars, which in theory should make them more easily digestible, in stored tubers there are more complex changes in the structure of the inulin which might account for the digestion problems which many people encounter. it also seems that the more you eat the greater your tolerance, so eat fresh and a little and often.

  2. I have them all over my raspberry bed, they are impossible to eradicate . I thought their anti- social effects would be minimised if I served them liquidised in a soup with carrots at a dinner party. It was a delicious soup but I found out afterwards that people were caused some inconvenience and discomfort by them. Not to mention embarrassment.

    • I sympathise. In the past I’ve had problems with the artichoke invasion and had to revert to the chemical nasties when it came marching down the drive!
      You are brave to serve it to guests, we always ask first and almost everyone politely declines.

  3. The flowers have appeared in various Monday vases over the years Christine, confusing everyone by pretending to be sunflowers 😉 What an interesting and detailed background to their various qualities you have provided – certainly enough information for people to make up ther own minds. I have had them in the past but with relatively limited (well, in terms of wanting more space for decorative plants) space I got rid of them but did pass tubers on to a friend (with a warning!)

    • Well if you have a bad reputation it is understandable that you might try to emphasize the positive, unfortunately the flowers are a bit under-stated for a sunflower.

      • Can’t blame them for trying 😉

  4. Our family call them fartichokes. I enjoy them oven roasted in a little butter. Ours were dug up from a field where they were used for game cover and I often think perhaps we should replace them with a more culinary variety that may cause less flatulence.

    • The new varieties are less knobbly and bigger, but I think we’re stuck with the after effects.

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