Monday, August 17, 2009

Now, where did I put my sunchokes?

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel August 17, 2009)

Gulf fritillary butterflies seem to share my affinity for Helianthus tuberosus, a member of the sunflower family more commonly known as Jerusalem artichoke or sunchoke. For the past few days I've been looking out my porch windows and watching the orange butterflies land on the bright yellow flowers. Although we're both attracted to the blooms, there's another part of the plant I'm also fond of — its edible tubers.

In April, I bought a couple of pounds of Jerusalem artichokes from my local grocer with the intention of eating a few and planting the rest to harvest in the fall. I've always liked the way sunchokes taste. They have a crisp texture and a slightly sweet, nutty flavor. Although the potassium-rich tubers can be boiled, baked, grated, diced and added to stir-fries, I've always preferred to eat them fresh, like an apple — scrubbed free of dirt before biting into their crunchy goodness. For me, the cheery, daisy-like flowers are a bonus — I'm after the underground rhizomes.

Sprouts began to appear shortly after Ralph and I buried about two dozen of the stubby tubers in a bed of enriched soil. A few weeks later, those sprouts developed rough leaves and tough, hairy stems that grew taller by the day.

"I can't remember how big they grow," I said to Ralph as I watched the garden bed fill with leafy, green clumps. "I hope I picked a good spot."

Plant placement is an art I have yet to master. Twice before, I grew sunchokes in what turned out to be inappropriate locations. I made my first mistake on Cape Cod, and about 10 years ago I miscalculated again in Florida. Both times the plants took over their allotted space, spreading into areas where I didn't want them to be. Jerusalem artichokes are notoriously invasive. If even a small piece of a tuber remains in the soil after harvesting, an entirely new batch of flowers will emerge the next year.

On both of those previous occasions, we managed to eliminate the sunchokes by rigorously harvesting each individual tuber. Now, over a decade later and with previous lessons in mind, I was ready to try again. I chose my location carefully, picking a garden bed completely contained by the house on one side and by a curved concrete walkway on the other. I felt confident the tubers could not escape.

What I didn't take into account was the plant's tendency to sprawl.

Helianthus tuberosus are tall plants — much taller than I remembered. After five months of growth, they stand about 8 feet high. If they stood up straight their height wouldn't be a problem, but they don't. Like many tall plants, sunchokes tend to lean over. To make matters worse, the plant's leaves and stems have a rough texture that's unpleasant to touch.

Unfortunately, the spot where I planted them is right next to our porch door and alongside a concrete path that we use daily. When the stalks lean over, they interfere with both the walkway and entry.

Darn! And I thought I was being so careful this time.

This morning Ralph tried to solve the problem by wrapping a rope around the stems and tying them upright. It was an effective, if not particularly attractive, method. After viewing my husband's handiwork, I suggested we think about relocating the entire patch after we harvest the tubers.

"Got anyplace in mind?" he asked.

I said I did.

"Maybe behind the compost pile?" I suggested. "They could do their spread-and-sprawl thing and not be in the way of any walkway or doors. And if we planted them there, I could see the flowers from my office."

"That might work," he replied.

It's difficult picking the right place for plants. You start with a packet of seeds —or, in the case of Jerusalem artichokes, with a basketful of rhizomes— and try to imagine how the mature plant will look. How much space will it take up? Will it interfere with other cultivars? Will it grow too tall, blend in with other plants or become practically impossible to eliminate if you want to remove it? Although I've made just about every mistake you can make with plant placement, I still find the process exciting.

The Helianthus tuberosus I planted in April are almost ready to harvest. Come September, I'll have quantities of homegrown tubers to eat and share with others. Most people have never tasted Jerusalem artichokes, and I'd like to change that. Despite their negative features — a tendency to sprawl, an invasive growing pattern and rough-textured foliage that irritates sensitive skin — sunchokes have much in their favor. These easy-to-grow perennials not only produce a versatile, flavorful and nutritionally rich vegetable, they have pretty flower heads that butterflies find irresistible.

When I weigh the plant's pros and cons, the pluses win out. Maybe next time I'll pick an appropriate location where the sunchokes can stay indefinitely. I know the Gulf fritillaries would like that and, after three wrong choices, I'd like it too.

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