Sunchoke

The sunchoke, aka Jerusalem artichoke, is often touted as a flag species for permaculture in the Midwest.  Sunchokes, Helianthus tuberosus, are a native edible perennial member of the aster family.  They are so resilient that I have seen plants accosted by aphids and drought in poor soils and still produce massive crops of tasty tubers.

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The tubers are eaten like potatoes, raw or cooked, but unlike potatoes sunchokes have a healthy glycemic index and can be eaten by diabetics and dieters. Sunchoke’s taste varies with cultivar, but most are something like a cross between a water chestnut and a potato.  Fresh sunchokes are crisp and moist with a thin skin.

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The plant’s health benefits derive from the fact the plant stores a sizable fraction of their carbohydrates as inulin, an indigestible polysaccharide.  For a pest, this means empty calories and lowered fitness; for humans, who it provides soluble fiber and can help balance carbohydrate intake.  Because sunchokes are so high in inulin consumption should be regulated in a manner similar to garlic, chicory, leeks, or dandelions.  Mixing with sweet potatoes or another root crop can result in more balanced carbohydrate intake.

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Sunchokes are high in protein (~10%) and calcium are also a great supplemental food for chickens.  Chickens are happy to gobble up tubers damaged by pests or during harvest, ensuring nothing goes to waste.

One of my favorite sunchoke traits is that you can leave them in the ground over the winter (unlike potatoes, yams, sweet potatoes, oca, etc.  This means you don’t need a root cellar to grow and store large quantities of these crops.   Sunchokes are best dug and divided each year to prevent thicker skins and excessive fiber in the tubers.  Sunchokes make a great trellis for yams or late season peas.

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Finally, who doesn’t love a 15’ tall sunflower that blooms in the fall?  The plant produces large clusters of silver dollar sized blooms which can number in the hundreds in a small patch.  While these blooms are usually infertile they provide not only beauty but also pollen and nectar for bees.