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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Quirky, Helianthus tuberosus

Is Jerusalem artichoke native in our region? What is its connection to Jerusalem? Did local Native American tribes have uses for it? I grow it, and friends have suggested that it is a good alternative to potatoes for people with diabetes because it has a lower glycemic index. Have you heard anything about that?


Jerusalem artichoke or sunchoke (Helianthus tuberosus) is commonly found across most of North America, according to its plant profile on the website of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The plant's common name mistakenly suggests it might be from Jerusalem, but the name probably evolved through faulty hearing, either of the Italian word for sunflower [girasol] or of Ter-Neusen [now spelled Terneuzen], where a 17th century Dutch gardener began distributing the plant throughout Europe. Another theory is that pilgrims in North America believed this would be a wonderful new food source in their "New Jerusalem." [source: D. R. Cosgrove et al. Jerusalem Artichoke in Alternative Feed Crops Manual, University of Wisconsin and University of Minnesota Extension, accessed online November 1, 2014). For an in-depth exploration of the plant's name and its uses, see the chapter in The Sunflower by Charles Heiser (University of Oklahoma Press, 1976).

The book Native American Food Plants: An Ethnobotanical Dictionary by Daniel Moerman (Timber Press, 2010) mentions uses of the plant's tubers by numerous tribes, but not ones in the Pacific Northwest. Some tribes, such as the Chippewa, traditionally used the tubers raw, while others like the Dakota boiled them (and noted that their overuse caused flatulence, about which more later!). Several tribes (Huron, Lakota) only used the tubers during periods of famine to fend off starvation. The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center's Native Plant Database says that Helianthus tuberosus "was cultivated by Native Americans of the Great Plains and has spread eastward. The edible tuber is highly nutritious and, unlike potatoes, contains no starch, but rather carbohydrate in a form that is metabolized into natural sugar. In 1805 Lewis and Clark dined on the tubers, prepared by a native woman, in what is now North Dakota."

We recommend consulting a healthcare professional to find out if Jerusalem artichokes would be a better choice than potatoes (which contain starch) for someone with diabetes. Helianthus tuberosus, like other sunflowers, is in the Family Asteraceae. It contains a polysaccharide (a type of carbohydrate) called inulin. The American Diabetes Association says that it's not necessarily true that potatoes or other starches are problematic--it is more about portion size and developing a balanced diet.

Another thing to consider is that not everyone has an easy time digesting the inulin in Jerusalem artichokes. Although culinary use of sunchokes has become quite a trend lately, some chefs will not serve it in their restaurants, according to Bon Appetit magazine (article by Andrew Knowlton, February 19, 2013) and the tubers have acquired the unhappy nickname 'fartichoke.' The Plants for a Future online database (www.pfaf.org) refers somewhat more delicately to inulin intolerance (which may be genetic): "[inulin] tends to ferment in their guts and can cause quite severe wind."

As you probably know, Helianthus tuberosus prefers sun, and can reach ten feet in height. You can plant small tubers in early to late spring. It is an easy plant to grow, and in some cases it proliferates like a weed. It might be good to confine it to one part of your garden if you can.

Date 2018-04-21
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May 16 2018 11:15:37