Jerusalem Artichoke/Sunchoke, Helianthus tuberosus

Family: Asteraceae, the Aster Family

Description: Native perennial herb 1-3m tall. Very sunflower-like in appearance (same family). Leaves alternate above, opposite below, stems hairy, tuberous rhizomes

Abundance: Uncommon on Mt. Desert Island, but weedy once established.

Habitat: Old fields, sometimes planted in gardens

Plant Parts Used: Tubers

Food: Tubers like potatoes

Medicine: Diabetes

This native plant is often forgotten despite its similarity to the potato and how easy it is to grow. The tuber can be eaten cooked or raw. The raw tuber tastes like a water chestnut and the cooked tuber is reminiscent of a potato, but not as good mashed. Most Native Americans in the sunchoke’s range ate this tuber regularly, but it has largely been replaced with the potato, native to South America. Jerusalem artichoke is an easy plant to harvest, grow, and incorporate into our diets without going to the grocery store. However, this successful plant can easily take over a garden—Jerusalem artichokes should be planted in an isolated patch away from other gardens. The Winnebago, Potawatomi, Ponca, Pawnee, Omaha, Mi’kmaq, Malecite, Lakota, Iroquois, Huron, Hopi, Dakota, Chippewa, Cheyenne, and Cherokee have all used Jerusalem artichoke for food.

Jerusalem artichokes also contain inulin (an indigestible complex sugar) and were used in diabetes treatments before the development of isolated insulin (a hormone responsible for regulating metabolism). In one particular case, a parakeet owner fed his bird Jerusalem artichoke three times a day for four months and normalized its glucose levels.

Note: This post is part of my Plants and People series. See my Plants and People page for more information about the project and the people referenced in this post.


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