Monday, October 4, 2010
The Last Flower of Summer
The regional wildflower season goes out in a blaze of glory with the sun-yellow blooms of Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus). Although this handsome plant can be distinguished from similar sunflowers by its large flower head, hairy stalk, egg-shaped rough leaves, and long-pointed bracts, I don't have to look that closely to know it when I see it. It's simply the only big yellow flower that bursts into bloom this late around Saratoga.
Its common name is actually quite a misnomer: a native plant, it did not arrive on our shores from the Holy Land, and although its rough stems and leaves may feel a little bit prickly, it's not related in any way to artichokes, which are a kind of thistle. This plant's Latin name, however, does provide a clue as to what distinguishes this sunflower from others of its genus: the tubers that form on its roots and which provided a staple food for early Native Americans. When the French explorer Samuel de Champlain first tasted these tubers in Massachusetts back in 1605, he declared that they tasted something like artichokes, so that's where the artichoke part comes from. The Jerusalem part? Most likely from the Italian word for sunflower, girasole, which means "turns with the sun" and kind of sounds like Jerusalem.
A few vendors at our local farmers' market offer the tubers for sale, so I bought some once to see how they taste. Ehhh . . . I think I'll stick with potatoes. But then, I'm not too fond of artichokes, either.
Update: My friend the plant expert Ed Miller has given me another clue to identifying Jerusalem Artichoke. He tells me that this plant has mostly alternate leaves, while most other sunflowers have opposite ones. Ed also noted that Newcomb's Wildflower Guide mistakenly shows it on a page keyed to opposites. Thanks, Ed. It's really great to have a walking plant encyclopedia as a friend.