A few days ago I spotted a vigorous stand of wild sunflowers along the streambed up the road, but when I drove by yesterday they were gone. Instead, there were piles of black dirt on the bank. The tubers of a native plant with a truly peculiar name--Jerusalem artichoke--had been dug up by a wild foods enthusiast, and I wouldn't be surprised to find them being sold as "sunchokes" at the village farm market this weekend along with natural meats and breads.
Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus), which stands as tall as 10 feet with golden-yellow flower heads that measure up to 3 inches across, flourishes from August into October in damp places east of the Rockies. But its original range is something of a mystery. Native Americans were harvesting its small potato-like tubers from their gardens when the French explorer Samuel de Champlain arrived at Cape Cod in 1605 and they probably traded the plant far and wide. Champlain sent samples home, commenting that they tasted like artichokes, and within a few years the plant was being cultivated throughout Europe. Italians called it girasole, which means "turning to the sun" and was quickly corrupted to "Jerusalem." By 1620 the Oxford English Dictionary had an entry for "Artichokes of Jerusalem."
Unlike starchy potatoes, the knobby Jerusalem artichoke tubers store carbohydrates that are metabolized into natural sugar. They are said to have a sweet, nutty taste when eaten raw and are scrumptious when roasted, stir-fried or boiled, though I can't affirm that from personal experience. (For more details on the plant's fascinating history and preparation, click on the Jerusalem Artichoke Caper. For a variety of recipes, go to About.com.) The fermented sugars are also a potential high-yield source of ethanol and in Germany, a spirit called Rossler is produced from the tubers. I'm sure our mystery digger will enjoy his or her find. But I'm kind of disappointed that those towering wild sunflowers are no longer brightening the roadside up the lane.