This spectacular sunflower grows up to 10 feet tall with broad, thick leaves and numerous bright-yellow flower heads on branching stems at the top of the plant. It does best in full sun and thrives in just about any soil as long as it isn’t soggy. Once established, it can handle drought. Like other sunflowers, it has great wildlife value, especially for late-season bees and migrating birds. While native to North America, a common name for it is Jerusalem artichoke. It is thought that “Jerusalem” is a distortion of the word “girasole,” which is the Italian term for sunflower.
One of the best things about this member of the sunflower family is that after it finishes blooming, it provides a huge crop of tasty and healthy root vegetables. For notes on harvest, preparation, nutrition and health benefits, see below.
This plant spreads aggressively to form colonies, so plant it where it won’t spread into other valuable plants. If using sunchokes in a vegetable garden, make sure its height doesn’t shade out other crops, and give it space or consider using a root barrier. Corn and rhubarb are good companion plants, but sunchoke may inhibit the growth of tomatoes and potatoes.
Native habitats include thickets, woodland borders, old fields, stream banks, railroads, road margins, and waste places. Due to its height and thuggy-ness, use in naturalized areas such as meadows or wildflower gardens, rear corners of borders, and vegetable gardens, where it has room to spread.
Grows 6-10’ tall and 3-5’ wide.
Needs at least 6 hours of direct sun.
Prefers loose, fertile, well-drained soils but will grow in other well-drained soils with dry-to-medium moisture.
Flowers bloom August-October. Each flower has 12 to 20 yellow rays surrounding a center disk of tiny, darker-yellow disk florets that give way to achenes, or seeds.
Ovate-shaped leaves are 4-8” long with pointed tips, serrated edges, and a rough texture. Stems are hairy and rough.
Host plant for 76 species of Lepidoptera larvae, including silvery checkerspot butterfly, white-marked tussock moth, giant leopard moth, and 11 specialists. The nectar brings in butterflies and bees until the first frost. The seeds attract songbirds, especially finches.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Sunchoke has many medicinal uses. It contains inulin, which helps to keep blood and glucose levels stable and also supports healthy intestinal flora. Sunchoke is an especially good choice for people who have diabetes because it is a nutritious, low-starch potato substitute that helps regulate blood sugar levels. It also helps with cardiovascular diseases, chronic infectious diseases, chronic fatigue syndrome, gut flora disorders, and immune system disorders. It may also improve liver function for people with nonfatty liver disease.
Sunchokes were an important food plant for Native Americans, who cultivated and relied on it for survival. Lewis and Clark ate tubers prepared by an indigenous woman in what is now North Dakota.
Sunchoke is low in calories and carbs, high in fiber, and a great source of iron, calcium, magnesium, and potassium. Harvest the tubers after the plant browns on top, as this indicates the nutrition and energy of the plant has shifted below ground. Dig up as many as you like, because the incredibly hardy plant will produce even more tubers the next season. Preparation of the tubers is easy— no peeling required! Just rinse the ginger-like tubers and slice as needed. Raw slices taste similar to water chestnuts, and they add crunchy texture to salads. Sunchoke tubers can also be fried, roasted, boiled, pickled, steamed, grilled, mashed, or pureed into soup.
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