Landrace Gardening: Sunroots

Reader Contribution by Joseph Lofthouse
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Sunroots are the edible rhizomes that form under a species of sunflower. They are also called by other names such as Jerusalem Artichokes and Sunchokes. I do not use those names because they are not from Jerusalem, they are not artichokes, and I consider it bad marketing to choke the people I feed. 

I prefer to eat sunroots raw. I grate them for adding to a coleslaw or salad. They also work well when added to a soup or stir-fry. Sunroots contain the prebiotic soluble fiber inulin which can cause gas or bloating if eaten in large quantities by people unaccustomed to eating prebiotic foods. I recommend soups, stir-fry, and salads because it is easy to add small amounts of sunroots to foods that are already familiar.

Sunroots seem like the perfect emergency survival food to me because they grow prolifically and the tubers are winter hardy allowing them to be stored in the ground until needed. The tubers are susceptible to dehydration, therefore, after digging, I recommend storing them in plastic in the refrigerator. If leaving the tubers in the ground overwinter I cut the stems off to avoid having the plants levered out of the ground by a winter wind.  I leave about a foot of stem attached so I can find them easily. I typically dig sunroots in late fall and early spring.

I am creating a survival-of-the-fittest landrace of sunroots for my garden. Sunroots have a reputation for being sterile and not producing seeds. That is because seeds only form if pollinated by an unrelated plant and since most people grow a single clone they do not get seeds. Harvesting seeds from sunroots can also be problematic because goldfinches are extremely effective predators of the seed. I bag the seed heads or harvest them shortly after petal drop. Sunroots growing in a genetically diverse population produce thousands of seeds per plant. I only have to bag a few heads in order to have an abundance of seed.

Sunroot seedlings are cold hardy. I plant them in early spring about the same time as carrots or beets. The seedlings produce rhizomes and seeds during the first growing season. I plant the seedlings about 18 inches apart. That gives enough space to evaluate each plant for properties that are important to me: productivity, shape, length of stolons (shorter is better), wind tolerance, color, etc. I replant tubers from the best plants into a new row so that they can cross-pollinate next year.

Sunroots readily propagate from rhizomes which can lead to weediness. If I were not selecting for a locally-adapted landrace I would plant sunroots into a perennial bed where they could resprout every year. No matter how carefully I harvest there are always some rhizomes that get missed.  

Sunroots are a crop that is commonly grown as clones. They have great potential to become a locally-adapted survival-of-the-fittest landrace. This is part of the reason why I believe that landrace gardening is a path towards food security through common sense and traditional methods.

Joseph Lofthouse grows vegetables in a cold mountain valley where he practices the art of landrace gardening in order to feed his community more effectively.

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