Easily grown and impossible to kill, the sunroot is an amazingly useful and beautiful plant that belongs in every garden.
Everyone has grown the venerable Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus)
, but did you know that this genus of plants includes a perennial that belongs in every garden?
Sunroots (Helianthus tuberosus)
, also known as sunchokes or Jerusalem Artichokes, are actually perennial sunflowers! Sporting the same familiar (but small) sunflower blooms, they reliably come back from their roots year after year with lush foliage and hundreds of cheerful flowers. Following the principles of permaculture, the plants in a self-sufficient garden should all have multiple uses, and the sunroots really shine in this department.
They are an absolute magnet for butterflies. Every summer the swallowtails swarm the sunroot blooms and bring flying beauty to the landscape. The blooms begin in mid summer and continue all the way until frost.
The roots are edible and have numerous uses! Once frosts have killed off the top growth, dig around under the plant and pull out small tubers, the size of large new potatoes. These can be scrubbed clean, sliced and eaten fresh, or sautéed in butter or lightly roasted in a pan. There are recipes on the internet for making a cream of sunroot soup that is excellent over pasta. The flavor of the tubers resembles water chestnuts. Recipes calling for carrots or potatoes can often use sunroot tubers instead. They can also be dried and ground into a flour that can be mixed up to 50/50 with wheat flour. Or use the dry tubers as a coffee substitute. Alcohol can be brewed from sunroot tubers and there is a potential for these to become a fuel crop. Yes, the list goes on and on.
Sunroots are truly prodigious in their growth, and can be grown effortlessly in almost any soil conditions. Their only real requirement is their need for full sun. You can cut and store the foliage for animal feed, and you can also use the foliage as a mulch for garden plants. When the plant reaches a good height (easily taller than an adult), you can cut it down and use the results as mulch around your gardens. It'll quick regrow new foliage.
Some people grow them in special pens where they grow for the season, and then in the fall they turn their hogs out into the pen, who spend the next few weeks rooting around and enjoying the delicious earthbound delicacies.
Plant them in a permanent location! If you get the sterile varieties, they will not spread so easily, but they are difficult to eradicate once planted, so you can't get rid of them easily. Every little tuber will sprout in the spring, so choose a site in full sun with average soil and you'll enjoy them forever. If you do decide to get rid of them entirely, fence the area and let your pigs or chickens spend a season in there.
These robust plants with heavy foliage and dense root systems easily out-compete other plants, even invasive ones. Planted in a row, they act as a wall, hindering the spread of invasive species like bermuda grass. Along those same lines, the sunroots can form a suitable windbreak.
Grow beans, peas, cucumbers or other lightweight climbers around your sunroots and let them grow up together. The sunroot will enjoy the companionship and the climbing vines will enjoy the support. You will enjoy not having to put up a trellis system! This is a good example of a plant guild.
You've heard these referred to as Jerusalem Artichokes, but where did that name originate? The native americans had long grown this as a cultivated vegetable, and after they were introduced to Europe they became known as "girasole" in Italy and "girasol" in Spain. These names became corrupted by the English into "Jerusalem." The "artichoke" refers to the fact that long ago people boiled the flower buds and ate them with butter like artichokes.
Where to obtain
Fedco, the Seed Savers Exchange and Oikos Tree Crops are all fine choices.