What are sunchokes?
They are a potato-like tuber from a type of sunflower. They can be used much like you would use a potato, boiled, roasted or fried. Their flavour is sweet, mild and nutty - comparable to hazelnuts or sunflower seeds. Unlike potatoes, they should be kept in the fridge, but then they stay good for eating for a very long time, even over a year! Sunchokes are a food that is indigenous to North America and were cultivated and spread across the continent by many First Nations.
Why eat sunchokes?
Beyond having a great flavour, they are also very nutritious! They are high in potassium, iron, fiber, niacin, thiamine, phosphorus and copper. Many people find them to be a healthier alternative to potatoes because they contain inulin and therefore do not spike the blood sugar like potatoes, many diabetics can eat them with no issues.
If you’re trying sunchokes for the first time it is recommended to start with just a small amount as they can cause digestive upset in some people, but with a longer cooking time or by adding ginger you can often counteract this effect.
Why grow sunchokes?
They are possibly the easiest vegetable to grow! Simply bury a tuber in soil in the spring and by the fall you could be harvesting 1 lb per plant, or even more. Sunchokes are a perennial plant, so they will grow back year after year, producing pounds of food a year, they will grow back from even the tiniest tuber left behind.
They are a very sustainable food crop for the future. Some of their amazing qualities: they do not require much fertilizer at all, they do not have any pests that we’ve seen, they do not need to be planted every year, they produce well without any water beyond what they get from the rain, they produce substantial yields even in drought years, they can be harvested in the fall, or left in the ground over the winter and dug up in the spring, and they flower later in the fall than most plants - allowing bees one extra boost of nectar and pollen before their winter sleep.
One our farm, we started with 10 lbs of tubers in 2016 and now have hundreds of pounds of sunchokes per year. We haven’t brought in any other tubers since the original 10 lbs. This is a food crop that multiplies itself very easily! In a world where food security is ever more unstable, having a nice sunchoke patch is a great way to ensure there will always be food nearby.
The type we grow is known as “Passamaquoddy Potatoes” and was developed on Grand Manan Island by the First Nations there. They have magenta skin with bright white flesh and the best flavour of sunchokes that we’ve tried. When digging sunchokes, this bright colour helps you see them amongst the soil - another big plus of this variety.
If you’re interested in growing sunchokes, the best time to plant them is during the spring. Just dig a hole 6 inches to a foot deep in a sunny location, throw in the tuber and cover it! They prefer sandy soil, but honestly they will probably grow anywhere you plant them. By late May or June you will have the green growing tips poking up through the soil and they will continue growing through the summer to reach heights of 6’, 8’ or even taller! Then by the end of September you will see them growing yellow flowers at the tops of their stalks that resemble small sunflowers. As said before these are much loved by bees for their winter food stores. Once there’s a frost and the plant starts to die, then the tubers will not get any bigger and you can start harvesting them. You can pull up the stalk and there will be many tubers growing from the roots which can then be pulled off. You should also bring a shovel because the roots can grow a few feet before producing a tuber, so just dig around in the immediate vicinity of the plant and you’ll likely find some more. Many people wait until the spring to harvest sunchokes as they tend to get sweeter over the long winter dormancy, it’s up to you! Any tubers left in the soil will sprout again in the spring and start another generation of plants. And honestly even if you think you’ve harvested all the tubers there will probably always be some that you miss that will grow, sunchokes are masters of survival!
If you want to try sunchokes for eating or for growing you can order them:
Our farm as well as Moon Tide Farm (who we got our first 10 lbs from) both have the Passamaquoddy variety available on there.
Happy eating and growing!
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