Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Gardening: Who would have guessed

When is a vegetable not a vegetable? When you put it in your flower border.

Every fall for the past many years I have walked past a tall stand of sunflower-like blooms. They're in the front yard of a Victorian house on a very busy downtown city street. Majestically standing at 6 feet high, they also took the prize in my mind for sheer tenacity. They don't bloom until September, and keep going until they finally lose their battle against the frost—and they go down fighting, still in full bloom. Wow.

I've taken many a stab at identifying it. The helianthus family is very large. But I have finally identified this wondrous flora, and was surprised to learn I could purchase it in the grocer's vegetable aisle, AND that it's a native plant. It is none other than the Jerusalem artichoke.

The Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) is a native sunflower found from Maine to northern Florida. It is cultivated for its tuber, which is used as a root vegetable.

A herbaceous perennial it grows 1.5–3 metres high (5 –9 ft) with opposite leaves on the lower part of the stem becoming alternate higher up. The flowers are a beautiful light yellow averaging 3 inches wide.

Here's some Wikipedia info. Very enlightening:
"Despite its name, the Jerusalem artichoke has no relation to Jerusalem, and it is not a type of artichoke, even though both are members of the daisy family. The origin of the name is uncertain. Italian settlers in the USA called the plant girasole, the Italian word for sunflower because of its resemblance to the garden sunflower. Over time the name girasole may have been changed to Jerusalem." (this is a sensical misunderstanding - Docaitta)

"The tubers are sometimes used as a substitute for potatoes: they have a similar consistency, and in their raw form have a similar texture, but a sweeter, nuttier flavor; raw and sliced thinly, they are fit for a salad. The carbohydrates give the tubers a tendency to become soft and mushy if boiled, but they retain their texture better when steamed. The inulin is not well digested by some people, leading in some cases to flatulence and gastric pain. 

Gerard's Herbal, printed in 1621, quotes the English planter John Goodyer on Jerusalem artichokes: which way soever they be dressed and eaten, they stir and cause a filthy loathsome stinking wind within the body, thereby causing the belly to be pained and tormented, and are a meat more fit for swine than men." (mmmmm…tasty.)

That's OK, If I don't get a single tuber I'll still be happy. What I want is a plant that will keep me company up to the dreary doorstep of winter, when most other plants will have long ago vanished.

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