Sunchokes: Native Sunflowers that Prodigiously Produce Palatable Prebiotic “Potatoes.”
Helianthus tuberosus is a native North American sunflower that grows substantial amounts of ginger-shaped and potato-like tubers that are seemingly esteemed by foodies everywhere on the Earth but North America.
An introductory statement like that tempts your author to light the fuse, walk away, and let its explosion of truth ring in the the end credits.
NO WAY, Traveller! There is MUCH MORE.
A statement like that begs questions:
How can an easy-to-grow, delicious, prebiotic, and wonderfully productive garden vegetable be so neglectfully ignored?
What wind carried these tubers from behind our North American backs and into the faces of chefs around the world?
I will use the following cryptic statement to clue you in on one reason for their neglect: I have included a section on how to deliciously mitigate the notorious flatulence associated with these tubers. Naturally, those with any aversion and/or serious allergies to fart humor should avoid that section. The child within me just could not hold it in.
Today we will discuss a delicious health-promoting prebiotic food that is great for carb-counting dieters and diabetics alike. We discuss a plant used in the production of biofuel, and a high-end liquor called topinambour. Perhaps— most importantly— we will discuss a plant that people with a missing or erstwhile black gardening thumb can grow like a GOD (Priapus will blush)!
Welcome to the world of a “rare” (see “overpriced”) and misunderstood sunflower that grows delectable gourmet “potatoes.”
Welcome to the world of Helianthus tuberosus:
Family — Asteraceae (Sunflower family)
Family Characteristics — Plants in the Asteraceae family have composite flowers, meaning, what appears to be one flower will be composed of hundreds of smaller flowers.
Aliases — Sunchoke, Jerusalem Artichoke, Earth Apple, Fartichoke, Lambchoke, Canada Potato, Sunflower Potato; Tertufa (ARABIC); Topinambour, Soleil Vivace, Artichaut du Canada, Artichaut de Jérusalem, Pommes de Canada, Batatas de Canada (FRENCH); Hatichuk, Hindoo (HINDU); Topinambur, Topinambur Elianto, Topinabo, Tupinabo, Tapinabo, Patinabo, Tapine (ITALIAN); Kikumo (JAPANESE); Seb-I-Zamini-Angrez (PERSIAN); Topinembur (RUSSIAN); Topinambo, Pataca, Aguaturma (SPANISH).
Archaic Synonyms — Helianthus radice tuberosa; Flos Solis Farnesianus; Chrysanthemum latifolium Brasil; Flos tuberosus Solis sen Flos Farnes; Adenes Canadenses; Flos Solis pyramidalis; Heleniam indicum tuberosum; Chrysanthemum canadense; Chrysanthemum perenne majus; Holenium Canadense; Helianthemum radice tuberota
Binomial Etymology (Helianthus tuberosus)—Heli-*a references the sun; -anthus denotes “the flower;” tuber- refers to a knob, knot, or swelling, and -osus means “full of” (Borror, 1960). So, the name means “sunflower that is full of tubers.”
Binomial Pronunciation: — HE-Lee-Anth-us Tuber-OH-sus
USDA Native Status — Native to Canada and the Lower 48.
H. tuberosus demands consistently damp soils (around 30% moisture) (Cosgrove et. al., 2017), and thrives in waste places, abandoned fields, and roadsides (Helianthus tuberosus, n.d.). If you plant them in a moderately watered area of your garden, you will be in their company forever.
The 2 inch (5 cm) flowers are compound with brownish central disks flanked by yellow outer ray-petals with hairy stems (Helianthus tuberosus, n.d.).
Sunchoke Edible Uses
Producing as many as 200 edible tubers per plant (Sandborn, 2016), the sunchoke is a prolific food crop with the tubers being the main culinary component. H. tuberosus is even more versiatile than the potato; it can be eaten raw and fermented, yet — like the potato — it can be mashed, turned into flour, baked, and fried.
The flavor of H. tuberosus is similar to potato if it were delicious raw. It carries additional nutty tones and far-off hints of radish. The texture of raw sunflower potatoes is as crisp and watery as a water chestnut; served hot, they mimic the texture of cooked or mashed potatoes. Frying and drying makes them crispy.
I believe I’ve found a simple way to mitigate the noisy nature of this food (see below).
Sunchoke Ethnobotany and Medicinal Uses
In WESTERN INDIA — Kathiawar particularly — H. tuberosus is said to be boiled in milk in order to promote strength (Stapf, et.al. 1983).
A Brief History of the Sunchoke
The early 15th century botanical record seems to erroneously express and propagate confusion that the geographic origins of H. tuberosus were somewhere in South America (Staph, et.al., 1983). This is not true. H. tuberosus was recorded in cultivation by native Americans in 1605 by Samuel De Champlain in French Canada (see Quote 1 below). It did not take long for this new plant to make its way back to the old world. In fact, H. tuberosus may have been introduced to the Parisian culinary sphere as early as 1607 (Lacaita, 1919). While no consensus exists for the identity of the person who transported H. tuberosus to the Old World for the first time, Louis Hébert (the first Canadian apothecary), Marc Lescarbot (French author, poet, and lawyer), or Samuel De Champlain, himself, are candidates, however, Lescarbot actually made claim to transporting H. tuberosus to the Old World a decade after his expedition (Lacaita, 1919). Petrus Hondius was the first known individual to make a proper description of the plant’s morphology in 1613 (Lacaita, 1919).
To the annoyance of botanists in the 17th century, the common French name for the H. tuberosus, topinambour, was born of the false supposition that the plant originated in Brazil, as the name was linked to an indigenous Brazilian tribe with whom the French were, at that point, fascinated (Lacaita, 1919).
The English name, Jerusalem artichoke, appeared almost as soon as H. tuberosus arrived in England in the early 1630s (Lacaita, 1919), and — to contradict almost all online accounts— nobody knows where this common name came from. Most articles will begin with “the Jerusalem artichoke is niether from Jerusalem nor an artichoke…;” true enough, but articles most often go on to exclaim something like “the word ‘Jerusalem’ was actually a mispronounciation of the Italian word ‘girasole’ meaning sunflower.” In fact, this much-regurgitated assertion began as little more than an idle footnote guess made by Sir J. E. Smith in the 1807 botany textbook, “An Introduction to Physiological and Systematical Botany” (Lacaita, 1919) (See Image).
In fact, nobody has any evidence that the term girasole articiocco was used by the Italians at any point to refer to H. tuberosus prior to 1807. On the contrary, the term girasole was once used in Italian to descibe the supremely poisonous castor plant (Lacaita, 1919).
Sunchoke and Flatulence
…close the door behind you.
Did anyone wearing a fancy ascot or a monicle follow you here?
Look, I’ve got to level with you. I told you that H. tuberousum is a powerful prebiotic, right? Well, prebiotics are great for you and everything, but there is one slight drawback.
Although healthy and delicious, H. tuberosus WILL MAKE YOU FART LIKE A WATER BUFFALO.
If anyone tells you that they only affect “sensitive individuals,” or those with “delicate stomachs,” they may be trying to sell you some. No-human-body known at this time can break down inulin as a carbon source. So let’s explore the source of these hurricane-force winds.
So, What is Going on with These Farts?
For intestinal microbes, normal fiber found in foods like broccoli are like Foghat coming to the state fair: there is a general excitement among Foghat fans, but the town-at-large is able to remain calm.
On the other hand, the inulin contained in H. tuberosus is like The [^&**@ng] Beatles magically reuniting to play a concert in your intestines. Your colonic microflora go berserk when they find out The Beatles are in town and it quickly turns into the best day of their lives. Microbes arrive in droves; they are screaming, crying with joy, getting rich selling bootleg memorabilia for a couple hours, and as a result of all of this activity and enthusiasm: historic flatulence. Yes, no matter how fancy you are, this flatulence will come to you, and you will KNOW somethings going on.
So what is so exciting and healthy about inulin?
Inulin is a member of a class of dietary fibers known as fructans, which are long chains of fructose sugar molecules held together by β(2–1) bonds. β(2–1) bonds are unable to be broken by enzymes in the human digestive tract, leaving the caloric value of fructose under lock and key. That is, until they reach the lower digestive tract (Niness, 1999).
In the intestines, benificial bifidobacteria, laying in wait, readily consume inulin as a food source. As the bifidobacteria multiply, they outcompete pathogenic/harmful microorganisms promoting a revitalized/happy community of microflora in your lower digestive tract that leads to immunological benifits, as well as increased production of B vitamins. That is why inulin is termed a prebiotic, or, a nondigestible food component that promotes the growth and vigor of your intestinal microflora (Niness, 1999).
if you are planning on adding fresh or cooked H. tuberosus as a part of a dietary “cleanse,” you might want to skip your yoga class that night.
Fixing the Sunchoke Flatulence Problem
Traveller, I believe I have found a simple way to fix the sunchoke flatulence problem. A few years back, I had a wild idea: “if sun chokes store so much energy as inulin, wouldn’t it make sense that various species of Lactobacillus capable of consuming inulin would naturally be hanging around… waiting to feast upon this sweet nectar?”
Well, I pickled my sunchokes using a simple salt brine (the way you would make any pickle, and, I feel, the flatulence issue was diminished significantly.
Keep in mind, this is a qualitative statement. I had no way of scientifically testing for inulin content, and, while I did not carry out a legitimate “fart experiment,” I certainly did design one.
Did I mention that the sunchoke pickles where absolutely crispy and delicious?
Here is a video I made on how to make sunchoke pickles at home. I think I should do a better one soon, but I DID show the selected Lactobacillus under a microscope!
How to Ferment Sunchokes
Here is a short video I did on my first fermented batch of Sunchokes. It includes a step-by-step accounting of how to do it.
From experience, Sunchoke is super fun and easy to grow. The tubers are nutty and delicious, and, when fermented as a pickle, do not make you fart like an adult bison. What is not to love?