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Posts Tagged ‘sunchokes’

The Sunchoke Adventure

Sunchoke blossom

Sunchokes in the empty lot up the street put on a striking display in late summer and early fall.

That was a long, satisfying adventure! Adventure? My Sunchoke Adventure started in 2009 and reached a major milestone three minutes before I wrote this sentence.

Sunchoke sirens

In late summer of 2009, I noticed towering sunflower-like plants on the vacant corner lot up the street from the Cityslipper ranch. These produced bright yellow flowers that resembled small sunflowers. I took many photos over the years, but until 2014 I failed to capture the character of these dramatic plants.

In 2009 I knew way less about ornamental plants than I know now (which is impressively little), and I supposed these were wild sunflowers akin to prairie natives that grow as perennials (I’d read about prairie sunflowers years earlier from an article about making agriculture less destructive—before “sustainability” was a word).

Sunchoke blossom

A single stalk of a sunchoke plant can produce dozens of blossoms.

Wild sunflower non-germination

I wanted some. These flowers were gorgeous, and I thought they’d look great in my yard. So, I gathered seed heads when the blossoms faded, and let them dry out on the desk in my office.

Later, when I peeled apart the dried blossoms, I found nothing that resembled seeds. I tried again in 2010: I harvested spent flowers, let them dry in my office, and was unable to find seeds among the dried flower bits. I even planted the dried flower bits and kept the soil most for several weeks, but no seedlings emerged.

Not wild sunflowers; sunchokes!

Over the years, I photographed sunchoke flowers on the corner lot repeatedly, but I gave up on trying to grow the plants in my yard. Of course, I didn’t yet know they were sunchokes. But some time in 2012, I started to wonder, and Google led me to photos of these striking plants and to articles about them.

Sunchoke stalks after frost

The containment ring in which I planted sunchokes simply doesn’t extend deep enough into the soil. Stalks grew this season on the outside of the ring. So far, I’ve excavated only those plants and have found tubers well below the bottom edge of the ring.

Sunchokes, also called Jerusalem Artichokes, are edible plants! The part people eat is a tuber somewhat like a potato (so I read), and the plants reproduce aggressively. I was most deeply moved by an article titled Before You Plant Sunchokes, You Need to Read This Post which remains among my most favorite Internet reads of all time.

In the spring of 2013, while browsing at a fundraising plant sale in Ithaca, NY, I found a sunchoke at a very reasonable price and bought it.

Sunchoke containment

Late in the 2013 season, I set a containment ring in the soil—the center third of a food-grade plastic barrel—and mixed a lot of sand and compost with the soil inside the ring. There I planted the sunchoke.

In 2014, the plant expanded to produce, perhaps, a dozen stalks inside the containment ring—but without flowers. I left the plants untouched that year. This year, the containment ring erupted with sunchoke stalks.

Sunchoke tubers

In a minute or two of digging, I found a decent handful of plump tubers. I’m confident that if I jammed the rooted stems at the bottom of the photo back into the soil, they’d bounce back in the spring and produce more food in coming seasons.

The plants appeared healthy all season, though they never produced flowers… and flowers were what had drawn me to the plants in the first place. I planned to take a hand trowel with me some evening and dig a sunchoke plant from the corner lot; those plants clearly knew how to make flowers.

A month ago, it dawned on me: I didn’t need a trowel. From what I’d read, it’s hard to kill a sunchoke plant. On a whim, while walking the dog one day, I singled out a short sunchoke stalk on the corner lot. When I pulled on the stalk, it popped loose from the soil, sporting healthy roots and several apparent young plants emerging from the base of the stem. I planted the stalk in a flower pot on my porch where it happily blossomed and is now going dormant. I’ll find a place for it in the yard before the soil freezes.

Sunchokes in the kitchen

As I started writing this article, the question arose: What about the harvest? Trowel in hand, I examined the sunchokes and their containment ring. Clearly the ring had failed; there were many stalks on the outside.

Sunchoke tubers ready for the kitchen

Sunchoke tubers washed and ready to eat. I immediately sliced one up, tasted it, and found it very pleasant: a soft crunch with a mild lettuce-like flavor. Minimally, I’d use these in salads, but I’m curious to try them cooked. I’ll give that a go in the next few weeks.

I dug most of those stalks and excavated a generous handful of sunchoke tubers. Minutes later, I’d washed off the soil and sliced up a tuber for a tasting; I’d never eaten sunchokes.

What a thrill! Sunchokes have a delightful crunch and a delicious, lettuce-like flavor. At the very least I’ll include them in salads over the next several weeks.

I’ve heard mixed reviews about cooked sunchokes, so I’ll have to prepare some for a second taste-test. However that goes, I look forward finally to having sunchoke flowers in my yard. I’ll plant the wild one without a containment ring and deal with the consequences as they arise… If a domestic sunchoke wouldn’t stay in its place, it seems pointless to try to contain a wild sunchoke.

Small Kitchen Garden – The Sunchoke Adventure

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