Heirloom Jerusalem Artichoke Varieties
Learn all about the almost-forgotten vegetable, the Jerusalem artichoke, as well as how to grow and prepare it.
August 12, 2013
By William Woys Weaver
Heirloom Vegetable Gardening by William Woys Weaver is the culmination of some thirty years of first-hand knowledge of growing, tasting and cooking with heirloom vegetables. A staunch supporter of organic gardening techniques, Will Weaver has grown every one of the featured 280 varieties of vegetables, and he walks the novice gardener through the basics of planting, growing and seed saving. Sprinkled throughout the gardening advice are old-fashioned recipes — such as Parsnip Cake, Artichoke Pie and Pepper Wine — that highlight the flavor of these vegetables. The following excerpt on heirloom Jerusalem artichoke varieties was taken from chapter 19, “Jerusalem Artichokes.”
To locate mail order companies that carry these heirloom Jerusalem artichoke varieties, use our Custom Seed and Plant Finder. Check out our collection of articles on growing and harvesting heirloom vegetables in Gardening With Heirloom Vegetables.
A Brief History of Jerusalem Artichokes
Until about thirty years ago, the Jerusalem artichoke was practically a forgotten vegetable. Today there is renewed interest in it, because we now know that it contains free glutamine and is very high in free amino acids, nutritional points of considerable importance. The difficulty has been the knobbiness of the root, which has made it difficult to peel. I, for one, do not feel like throwing half the nutrients away with the flick of a paring knife, so I eat them unpared. However, there are those who want Jerusalem artichokes to resemble potatoes, and to please this faction, breeders have come up with new varieties that are more uniform in shape and size, free of knobs, and therefore easier to peel.
New varieties like Fuseau, Garnet, and Stampede are now appearing under the commercial names of Sunroot or Sunchokes. Dubbing the Chinese artichoke with the French name crosne did little to increase its popularity, but then, no one has tried to breed the knobs out of crosnes. Thus it remains to be seen what this marketing tactic will do for the Jerusalem artichoke. Breeders may have made it somewhat more lovely for magazine photography, but they have not bred out of it its remarkable ability to induce flatulence. This is not a vegetable to be served with beans.
In her American Cookery (1796, 13), Amelia Simmons made this perceptive observation about Jerusalem artichokes: “The Jerusalem is best, are cultivated like potatoes, (tho’ their stocks grow 7 feet high) and may be preserved like the turnip radish, or pickled — they, like Horse Radish, once in the garden, can scarcely be totally eradicated; plowing or digging them up with that view, seems at times rather to increase and spread them.” Words of true wisdom for the gardener who is thinking of planting them. On the other hand, their very invasiveness and productivity are reasons enough for their recommendation, for this is a very low-maintenance vegetable. They only require the right location.
At the time Amelia Simmons was penning her remarks about the Jerusalem artichoke, the vegetable was undergoing a gardening renaissance, for between 1785 and 1825 it was extensively cultivated, and many local varieties evolved. Then it quickly fell out of fashion and was soon neglected by all but the poorest of country gardeners. In Europe, however, it remained a popular exotic. Charles Bailly de Merlieux pointed out in his Maison rustique du XIXe siècle (1837, 1:451) that the Jerusalem artichoke was widely cultivated in eastern and southern France, where it was served as a fritter, fried in batter.
In the United States, where the Jerusalem artichoke is native, the tubers were not sold under varietal names until very recently, so the heirlooms that have begun to surface generally take their names from the place where they were found. Many of the American heirloom varieties available through Seed Savers Exchange appear to be duplications or variant forms of the same strain, slight differences arising due to soil or culture. Dave’s Shrine is the same as Wolcottonian Red and Judy’s Red. However, there are also several distinctive varieties worthy of note. Among these are Jack’s Copperclad, a long, pointed tuber that is copper-purple and rose; Mulles Rose, found in Stacyville, Maine; and Waldoboro Gold, an unusual yellow-rooted variety from the Maine coast. Many of the rarest varieties of Jerusalem artichoke seeds available through Seed Savers Exchange owe their preservation to Will Bonsall of Farmington, Maine. His Scatterseed Project, which distributes seed and plant stock only through Seed Savers Exchange, has earned the respect and gratitude of preservationists on several continents.
Growing Jerusalem Artichokes
Jerusalem artichokes are easy to grow. The tubers are planted in well-worked soil in the spring. Over the summer the bed should be weeded to prevent competition with the young artichoke shoots. As Alexander Forsyth pointed out in his article on the culture of the Jerusalem artichoke in the Gardener’s Magazine (May 1840, 259), it was determined long ago that to increase the size of the tubers, the plants should be topped at 18 inches in the summer and earthed up with a mixture of rotted manure and mulch. In the fall, after frost has killed the tops, the roots can be harvested as needed. Some gardeners store them in damp sand, others leave the tubers in the ground and cover them with straw over the winter. Either method will preserve them.
Several varieties of artichoke can be grown in the same garden. Only the seed will produce crosses. As long as the plants are propagated by their tubers, plant purity can be maintained. It is a good idea, however, to raise the artichokes in contained beds, otherwise they will increase on their own rapidly and run through hedges, clog lawn mowers, and bully their way into parts of the garden where they are not wanted. No one would call them elegant, yet lest we imagine that this “windy root” (as it was sometimes called in the eighteenth century) had no place in elegant cookery, I append the following recipe from the Philadelphia edition of Francatelli’s French Cookery (1848, 378). This is how the vegetable once was served in many American hotels.
Turn the artichokes into any fancy shape, place them in circular order in a deep sauté pan thickly spread with butter: season with mignonette pepper, nutmeg, salt, and lemon juice: moisten with a little [chicken] consommé, put the lid on, set them to simmer very gently over a slow fire for about half an hour—during which time they will, if properly attended to, acquire a deep yellow colour. Roll them up in their glaze, dish up, pour some Italian sauce round them, and serve.
By mignonette pepper, the chef meant a mixture of white and black pepper ground together. His Italian sauce was a tomato sauce. For some reason, cooked in this erudite manner, the artichokes loose their flirtatious ability to elicit gas.
The variety that I grow, which I offer through Seed Savers Exchange under the name Beaver Valley Purple, is the same Jerusalem artichoke illustrated in my Pennsylvania Dutch Country Cooking (1993, 107–8). I discovered it by accident while visiting Sarah Morgan, an elderly Pennsylvania Dutch cook well known for her rich chocolate cakes made with sauerkraut and porter beer. As our conversation about food unfolded, it became evident that Sarah was also an accomplished gardener and saver of seeds, particularly old varieties. She took me into the garden and unearthed an Aerdebbel (as she called Jerusalem artichokes in Pennsylfaanisch) that grew in many areas of the Beaver Valley where she lived. The plant had been in the garden when she and her husband bought the farm in the 1920s, and even then it was considered an heirloom by old-timers in the neighborhood.
Whatever its true age, Beaver Valley Purple is a distinct variety, its tan root heavily tinged with purple and demarcated with purple-brown bands. Not far from the spot where Sarah dug the artichokes, she also unearthed a purple-black potato known as the Black Mercer. This is a potato from the early nineteenth century, long thought extinct. It has a purple skin with white flesh.
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Illustration Courtesy William Woys Weaver. Photo By Fotoila/volff.