Whether you are a farmer, a suburban gardener or a city dweller, sunchokes should be a part of your life. With little or no inputs Helianthus tuberosus produces massive amounts of food and beautiful flowers.
The native perennial is an inspiring plant because it is extremely vigorous and thrives in pretty much any soil type. The vigorous shoots that reach for the sun grow up to 15 ft and have a beautiful little sunflower in the fall. Once the plant dies down you can harvest the high calorie tubers all winter as long as the ground is not frozen.
Many people get gas after eating sunchokes, my friend Paul Tappenden calls them “Jerusalem Fartichokes”! Sunchokes contain inulin which cannot be digested by most people, but certain methods of preparation solve the gas problem. By leaving the tubers in the ground for most of the winter the inulin levels go down and they become much sweeter.
I have read that native peoples would cook the tubers in pits for days to get rid of the inulin. Another method is pickling which has proven to not cause gas. There are so many ways to cook sunchokes but my favorite way so far is sunchoke latkes.
Sunchoke Latke Recipe
1 lb. Sunchokes
1 lb. Potatoes
Some Carrots, burdock or skirret root
1 handful of chopped onions
Grate tubers and roots and mix everything together, fry small handfuls at a time. Refrigerate and reheat for treat the next day.
Both Sunchoke tubers and tops can also be used for livestock fodder. Sunchoke tops have more TDN (total digestible nutrients) than alfalfa but have less digestible protein. I am especially interested in experimenting with pigs and sunchokes at Native Earth Teaching Farm. Pigs can initially be used to clear the forest under story of brambles, vines and opportunistic plants. After this disturbance sunchokes can be planted and maybe harvested for market for a couple years (this could be done in many patches). Eventually the pigs could be moved into sunchoke patches to eat the tops and tubers and cause disturbance again. The pigs would be very happy digging up the tubers and less feed would need to be imported, i would think the sunchokes would come back if the pigs were not left to long in each patch. I dream of a system where all feed for the pigs is grown on site and harvested by the pigs. Imagine chestnuts, oaks, hickories, apples, persimmons as a canopy and sunchokes and other tubers in the understory!
I have seen sunchokes for sale for 4-6 dollars per pound at market which is more than most organic potatoes. This is cool because they are much easier to grow than potatoes. People have also told me that some high end restaurants like sunchokes! I will be growing some large sunchoke patches for market experiments this summer.
Another plant that I am very interested in growing is Apios Americana or the groundnut which is a nitrogen fixing vine. Eric Toensmier and Jonathan grow sunchokes and groundnuts together like the three sisters. Adding the groundnut to the pig system could be possible too.
Sunchokes are also a great guerilla gardening plant because they are so vigorous. I know some people who have been establishing wild patches throughout their landscapes. These wonderful plants were cultivated by many native tribes and should be much more widely cultivated today. I am seeking different varieties of sunchokes and want to trade with anyone who has sunchokes.