Jerusalem Artichoke (Sunflower Artichoke)

Helianthus tuberosus

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Photo of the upper portions of two Jerusalem artichoke plants.
Jerusalem artichoke is a tall native sunflower with edible tubers and great crop potential.
Theodore Webster, USDA Agricultural Research Service, Bugwood.org
Edible
Family

Asteraceae (daisies, sunflowers)

Description

A very hairy, tall, much-branching perennial, often occurring in dense colonies. Flowerheads sunflowers, with 12–20 ray florets, to 3 inches across, frequently with a distinct chocolate scent. Blooms August–October. Leaves with winged petioles, lance-shaped, coarsely toothed, to 9 inches long, prominently 3-veined, rough and hairy above, downy below. Roots potato-like, edible tubers.

Similar species: This species hybridizes with other sunflowers, making identification difficult. Not counting hybrids, there are 16 species of Helianthus recorded for Missouri. This species is perhaps best identified by its leaves, which are mostly opposite, but alternate in the upper third of the plant; also that the leaves are long, lanceolate, 3-veined, coarsely toothed, long-tapered at the base with winged petioles, and rough-hairy above, downy below.

Size

Height: 7–12 feet.

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Photo of a Jerusalem artichoke flowerhead, with leaves in the background.
Jerusalem Artichoke
The flowerheads of Jerusalem artichoke are about 3 inches across, with 12–20 ray florets. It blooms August–October.

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Photo of a Jerusalem artichoke stem showing bases of two opposite leaves.
Jerusalem Artichoke (Stem with Leaf Bases)
Jerusalem artichoke is perhaps best identified by its leaves.

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Photo of uprooted Jerusalem artichoke plant showing tubers at rhizome tips.
Jerusalem Artichoke (Roots with Tubers)
The crisp, fleshy tubers of Jerusalem artichoke are edible and taste something like nuts and artichokes.

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Photo of a Jerusalem artichoke flowerhead with a black background.
Jerusalem Artichoke
Jerusalem artichoke deserves a better common name. It is not from Jerusalem, nor is it an artichoke.
Habitat and conservation

Banks of streams, rivers, and spring branches, bottomland forests, rich upland forests, sloughs, margins of ponds and lakes, and moist depressions of upland prairies; also pastures, fencerows, railroads, roadsides, and disturbed areas. Jerusalem artichoke is not an artichoke, nor is it from Jerusalem. The name is likely a corruption of the Italian “girasole” (sunflower). This plant is not from the Middle East: It is native to North America, including Missouri.

image of Jerusalem Artichoke Sunflower Artichoke Distribution Map
Distribution in Missouri

Scattered to common throughout the state.

Status

Cultivated worldwide for its edible tubers and as livestock feed. Its sweet storage carbohydrate, inulin, is not absorbed in our digestive tracts, thus it is extracted and used commercially in yogurts and other foods as a diabetic-friendly fat substitute and bulking agent. In the 1980s Jerusalem artichoke was promoted as a crop for ethanol production (the way corn ethanol is grown now), but the owners of the company behind this scheme were ultimately prosecuted as con artists.

Human connections

The crisp, fleshy tubers are edible and taste something like nuts and artichokes. They can be eaten raw, cooked, or pickled. Native Americans cultivated the plant, and it was a fashionable food in Europe in the 1600s. Sunchokes, hybrids with annual sunflower, were quite popular in the 1980s.

Ecosystem connections

Sunflowers provide nectar and pollen to a great variety of insects, plus a hunting ground for spiders, assassin bugs, and other predators of the many insects attracted to the flowers. When the flowers are spent, birds and mammals, including finches and rodents, relish the sunflower seeds.