• By Janine Pineo •
Once upon a time, I did not know what that sunshine-yellow flower was that grew with abandon at my grandmother’s house.
It was just “the yellow daisy” and I wanted some in my yard. For years, I’d watched them waving in the breeze, a daily occurrence given her location not far from the Atlantic. They looked so happy and carefree, brightening the day when it was misty-gray and just aglow whenever a ray of light struck. One always could find a few around the house, gracing a vase on a window sill or table.
After the unplanned invasion began at my house back in the 1990s, I finally found out what I had planted: the naughty native Helianthus tuberosus.
Otherwise known as Jerusalem artichoke, neither of which has anything to do with anything because it isn’t from Jerusalem nor is it an artichoke, this member of the sunflower family has a powerful tendency to run amok, which would explain how that “hedge” of them developed at my grandmother’s. Once it got established at my house, it started showing up farther and farther away from where it was originally planted.
Somehow it got into one of the beds several hundred feet north of the front yard and with the entire width of the house between the two. This year, I saw that it had jumped from that locale and found its way into a newer bed a few yards farther north.
It turns out that not only is the plant a willing self-seeder, it also can reproduce via that tuber not-so-carefully hidden in its name: tuberosus. For despite my best efforts at weeding it, it always comes back, for it can grow a whole new plant from just a piece of the tuber.
Marching armies could not be more invasive.
Which is why it is rather funny that I bought Jerusalem artichoke tubers this spring to plant in the vegetable garden.
For the sunchoke, as it is also known, is edible. At least the tuber is.
And a very tasty one it is.
I tried sunchokes a few years back when I came across them at a farmers’ market. The tubers tend to resemble ginger root, with knobs and nubs all over it. That can make it a challenge to peel, but it is worth the effort.
While the root is often compared to potatoes, probably because it can be prepared the same way, it isn’t starchy like a potato. Instead, most of its carbohydrates are in the form of inulin, which is best known as a source of fructose. That makes it a good food for diabetics because fructose doesn’t have the same effect as carbohydrates that turn into glucose.
I would compare the taste to that of a water chestnut, especially when eaten raw. I actually prefer it that way and not cooked.
As I looked through the catalogs this spring, I came across the listing for sunchokes at Fedco Seeds in Waterville. I liked the description of Clearwater, a favorite of one of the seed savers here in Maine who collected it “near his backyard.” Plus, it said the tubers were knobless, which meant peeling them might be less arduous.
When it came time to plant, I found some of the tubers had succumbed to a moldy condition because my “cold storage” had a less-than-ideal atmosphere to keep them cool enough, but a handful went in the ground.
And the wait began.
It took some time to see the first green sprouts coming up. Regular ol’ sunflowers planted next to them looked more pert.
Then the craziest thing happened. One of the plants started to grow like that fairytale beanstalk you’ve heard about.
It grew higher. It grew branches. It turned practically into a tree. And kept growing taller and taller.
The others that grew are much more demure, keeping the growth reined in to 6 feet or so.
As of this week, the highest stem of the monster sunchoke is about 10 feet tall and now topped with a cluster of just opening flowers. I keep looking at the base of the stem and wishing I could see through dirt to see how big that tuber is.
Nature, however, must take its course and nip it with frost. Then I will dig it up to see if I have bragging rights to a splendiferous sunchoke, the likes of which haven’t been seen in these here parts.
I just pray I get all of it or I may curse the day I planted such a naughty native in the vegetable patch.
First published in the Bangor Daily News on Sept. 29, 2012.