Fifth Empire Company

JERUSALEM ARTICHOKE

 
Jerusalem Artichokes, freshly dug up.

18th November, 2020

The Jerusalem Artichoke, despite its name, is not an artichoke. Nor is it from Jerusalem. It is in fact a member of sunflower family, grown not for its flowers (though they are a welcome perk), but for the abundance of knobbly tubers that it bears underground. Like many of the world’s edible root crops, the Jerusalem Artichoke is a native of North America. Its misleading name is likely a corruption of ‘girasole artichoke’ ‐ girasole being the Italian word for sunflower.

The tubers are, of course, edible and highly delicious. They were originally cultivated by Native Americans and quickly brought back to Europe, where they thrived. They are hardy, prolific plants that will establish themselves over the course of a single summer and multiply in great quantity every year thereafter.

Last summer we planted a two‐by‐two square foot of uncultivated soil ‐ neither tilled, nor fertilised ‐ with fifteen tubers. The plants grew rapidly, attaining a height of seven feet. The whole patch had to be roped around the middle in several places in order to stop them catching the wind and blowing over, although I imagine if they were planted in greater quantity this would be less of a problem. Few though they were, the fifteen plants were a magnificent sight. They can be seen below; in front of them grows a small quantity of Yacón ‐ another interesting root crop which deserves an article of its own.

When I reluctantly pulled them out of the ground at the end of October, I was staggered to harvest over fifty tubers, many of which were several times larger than the originals. The thick, sunflower‐like stems provide an absurd quantity of bio‐mass, and the bases can even be replanted so as to regenerate anew in the spring. I have since read that one may lay the cut stalks over the tubers left in the ground so as to protect them from harsh frosts over winter. There are likely many other uses for them. The stems, leaves, flowers and tubers may all be fed to livestock, while I imagine the stems would dry well and could be used as canes. Meanwhile, in Germany the sap and tubers are often fermented into a sweet and nutty brandy named ‘Topinambur’.

I grew two varieties: one an unnamed and, from what I have seen, more generic type ‐ lumpy, pale brown and elongated ‐ the other a cultivar named ‘papas’, which are larger and rounder. The generic plants grew taller and did not flower, while the ‘papas’ were shorter, multi‐stemmed and bore many modest yellow flowers.

The Jerusalem Artichoke has excellent permaculture potential. It is hardy, edible (not to mention highly nutritious), versatile in its uses and prolific. I rate it higher than the potato in both flavour and ease of cultivation. It would be easy to refine the crop over several seasons to produce larger, smoother tubers (as many growers are already endeavouring to do) and it has the potential to be a staple crop. In a world where we ought increasingly to look towards small scale solutions in the realm of food production ‐ as in almost all things ‐ this plant has a lot to offer. Individuals, families or communities seeking to reclaim their ability to feed themselves, as part of a journey towards self‐sufficiency to which we should all aspire, will recognise the immense value of an effortlessly productive Jerusalem Artichoke patch.

HOW TO GROW JERUSALEM ARTICHOKES

I. You will need to start by aquring some tubers, since the Jerusalem Artichoke is not propagated by seed.

II. Prepare the ground well. In general the looser the soil, the greater your harvest will be.

III. They are not particularly fussy about the fertility of the soil, but it ought be well-draining. Extra nutrients will give you larger plants and more numerous tubers.

IV. Bury the tubers or tuber segments about five inches down. You may mulch the soil to protect them from frost and give them a good start in life. They can be planted any time of year, but will only 'wake up' in spring. Planting in autumn or winter, or overwintering the tubers in the ground, will increase the likelihood that some will rot or be gnawed by pests. On the South coast of England, the leaves start to push up through the soil in early April.

V. As they grow it is a good idea to mound soil or mulch up around the base of each stem. This will help to support them, give them the strength to resist the wind, and ensure you maxmise the area in which the tubers will form.

VI. In autumn the leaves will start to yellow and the plants begin to die back. This means they are ready for harvest. Cut down the stems, leaving stumps above the soil. You can harvest tubers from the soil as required, or store them at low temperature and high humidity, for instance in sacks of cool, damp earth in a shed or cellar.

VI. You can lay the cut stems over the patch to protect tubers left in the ground. Any roots or tuber fragments remaining in the soil come spring will produce new plants, but be warned: left unchecked, their numbers can easily double year on year!

 
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