It is hard to believe that this time of year, after the ground has frozen and re-frozen for months, and was smothered with snow for most of winter, that there would be anything left that would qualify as food.
And yet, during the spring-like weather last week, I dug up my Jerusalem Artichoke patch. Not because I really needed it for food, but because I wanted to be reminded of the true nature of soil: that alive, crumbly substance that is womb to most of our real food. And, because I had promised a friend that I would dig up some of the tubers for her so she could start her own wild food production.
You wouldn’t think that under these dried up stalks, there’d be anything left to harvest.
These particular stalks were about 6 feet tall but they can grow to 8 or 10 feet in rich garden soil, once the tubers are more mature. In August, each hairy stalk with rough, dark green leaves produces a multitude of small sunflower blooms. In fact, Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosis) IS a native sunflower and was a welcome winter food for Native Americans. It does not produce those edible sunflower seeds we are all familiar with. Also, it is not an artichoke and has nothing to do with Jerusalem.
After the above-ground part of the plant dies back, the tubers inside the ground (I hate to say “under” the ground because what’s under the ground is subsoil and then rock layers). The tubers are often compared to potatoes but, really, they remind me more of ginger root, the way they grow in bulbous segments, sometimes round, sometimes more elongated. Even the color is very similar to ginger root, that beige color of the paper-like skin. But the similarities stop there.
The tubers can sometimes be found just under the surface (as above). At other times, you can dig between one and two feet deep and still find some deep inside the ground.
Jerusalem Artichokes (sometimes called sunchokes) have a mild taste, like potatoes. They can be boiled and smothered in butter or sliced or grated raw into salads. A friend pickles them and gave me a little jar once as a Christmas gift – a rare delicacy.
A small patch yields a substantial amount of food. This container was filled to the top when I was finished collecting all the tubers:
Now they are sitting in my basement, drying, and then I’ll keep them in the fridge until I feel like eating them. I love collecting food that hardly took any work to grow (toss the tubers in the ground in early spring, then wait for them to grow). I love collecting food in the middle of winter when everything seems dead (I feel connected to the ancestors of this land who knew how to survive before grocery stores were in vogue). I love getting my hands inside the soil (a layer of it was still a bit frozen), in anticipation of spring and the new seeds that will be sprouting from it, producing exuberant seedlings that only want one thing: to root themselves in the soil and sprout as tall and as wide as their genetic blueprint will encourage them to do. More and more, we are learning that the soil is the key; specifically, the microbes inside the soil. The more I learn about soil, the more I am in awe of the mysteries the soil holds inside.
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