Sunchokes: Native Sunflowers that Prodigiously Produce Palatable Prebiotic “Potatoes.”

Helianthus tuberosus

Image 1: H. tuberosus Flowers Growing in a Colorado Box Garden (Fall, 2017).

Archaic Synonyms: Helianthus radice tuberosa; Flos Solis Farnesianus; Chrysanthemum latifolium Brasil; Flos tuberosus Solis sen Flos Farnes; Adenes Canadenses; Flos Solis pyramidalis; Heleniam indicum tuberosum; Chrysanthemum canadense; Chrysanthemum perenne majus; Holenium Canadense; Helianthemum radice tuberota

Common Names

Arabic: tertufa.

English: sunchoke, Jerusalem artichoke, Earth apple, lambchoke, Canada potato, sunflower potato.

French: topinambour, soleil vivace, artichaut du Canada, artichaut de Jérusalem, pommes de Canada, batatas de Canada.

Hindu: hatichuk, hindoo, bengali.

Italian: topinambur, topinambur elianto, topinabo, tupinabo, tapinabo, patinabo, tapine.

Japanese: kikumo.

Persian: Seb-i-zamini-angrez.

Russian: topinembur

Spanish: topinambo, pataca, aguaturma.

Binomial Etymology:

Heli-*a references the sun; -anthus denotes “the flower;” tuber- refers to a knob, knot, or swelling, and -osus means “full of” (Borror, 1960). So, the name means “sunflower that is full of tubers.”

Binomial Pronunciation:

HE-Lee-Anth-us Tuber-OH-sus

USDA Status:

Native in the lower 48 states.


Asteraceae (Sunflower family)

Family Characteristics:

Plants in the Asteraceae family have composite flowers, meaning, what appears to be one flower will be composed of hundreds of smaller flowers.

Family Members :

Artichokes, lettuce, sunflowers, salsify, yacón, chamomile…

Image 2: H. tuberosus Growing in a Colorado Box Garden (Fall, 2017).


Helianthus tuberosus is a native American sunflower that grows substantial amounts of ginger-shaped and potato-like tubers that are seemingly esteemed by foodies everywhere on the Earth but America.

A statement like that tempts your author to light the fuse, walk away, and let the grand explosion of truth sing out the phrase: “the end.” However, the statement also begs questions: how can an easy-to-grow, delicious, prebiotic, and wonderfully productive garden vegetable be so neglectfully ignored? What wind carried these tubers from behind our North American backs and into the faces of chefs around the world? I will use the following cryptic statement to clue you in on one reason for their neglect: there is a section titled “flatulence” at the end of this article. Naturally, those with any aversion or allergies to fart humor should avoid this section; until then, I will try to hold it in until we get there.

Anyhow, the story of H. tuberosus is riddled with misconceptions and hyperbole. What we can say is that H. tuberosus is a health-promoting prebiotic food stuff that is great for carb-counting dieters and diabetics alike. It is used in the production of biofuel. It creates a high-end liquor called topinambour. It will fly you to Saturn on a glittering steed named Lieutenant General Fancy. One of these statements is false; join me as we find out which.


H. tuberosus demands consistently damp soils (around 30% moisture) (Cosgrove et. al., 2017), and thrives in waste places, abandoned fields, and roadsides (Helianthus tuberosus, n.d.). If you plant them in a moderately watered area of your garden, you will be in their company forever.


This 5–15ft (2–5 m) herbaceous flowering plant possesses 4–10 inch (10–25 cm) lanceolate leaves that have an alternate arraignment (Helianthus tuberosus, n.d.).

The 2 inch (5 cm) flowers are compound with brownish central disks flanked by yellow outer ray-petals with hairy stems (Helianthus tuberosus, n.d.).

Edible Uses

Producing as many as 200 edible tubers per plant (Sandborn, 2016), the sunchoke is a prolific food crop with the tubers being the main culinary component. H. tuberosus is even more versiatile than the potato; it can be eaten raw and fermented, yet — like the potato — it can be mashed, turned into flour, baked, and fried.

The flavor of H. tuberosus is similar to potato if it were delicious raw. It carries additional nutty tones and far-off hints of radish. The texture of raw sunflower potatoes is as crisp and watery as a water chestnut; served hot, they mimic the texture of cooked or mashed potatoes. Frying and drying makes them crispy.

Folk Remedies

In Western India — Kathiawar particularly — H. tuberosus is said to be boiled in milk in order to promote strength (Stapf, 1983).


See: Flatulence.


The early 15th century botanical record seems to erroneously express and propagate confusion that the geographic origins of H. tuberosus were somewhere in South America (Staph,, 1983). This is not true. H. tuberosus was recorded in cultivation by native Americans in 1605 by Samuel De Champlain in French Canada (see Quote 1 below). It did not take long for this new plant to make its way back to the old world. In fact, H. tuberosus may have been introduced to the Parisian culinary sphere as early as 1607 (Lacaita, 1919). While no consensus exists for the identity of the person who transported H. tuberosus to the Old World for the first time, Louis Hébert (the first Canadian apothecary), Marc Lescarbot (French author, poet, and lawyer), or Samuel De Champlain, himself, are candidates, however, Lescarbot actually made claim to transporting H. tuberosus to the Old World a decade after his expedition (Lacaita, 1919). Petrus Hondius was the first known individual to make a proper description of the plant’s morphology in 1613 (Lacaita, 1919).

To the annoyance of botanists in the 17th century, the common French name for the H. tuberosus, topinambour, was born of the false supposition that the plant originated in Brazil, as the name was linked to an indigenous Brazilian tribe with whom the French were, at that point, fascinated (Lacaita, 1919).

The English name, Jerusalem artichoke, appeared almost as soon as H. tuberosus arrived in England in the early 1630s (Lacaita, 1919), and — to contradict almost all online accounts— nobody knows where this common name came from. Most articles will begin with “the Jerusalem artichoke is niether from Jerusalem nor an artichoke…;” true enough, but articles most often go on to exclaim something like “the word ‘Jerusalem’ was actually a mispronounciation of the Italian word ‘girasole’ meaning sunflower.” In fact, this much-regurgitated assertion began as little more than an idle footnote guess made by Sir J. E. Smith in the 1807 botany textbook, “An Introduction to Physiological and Systematical Botany” (Lacaita, 1919) (See Image).

Image: The Footnote that Launched a Universal Dogma. This footnote was a mere side-thought of Sir J. E. Smith. Such was his reputation that this guess has been given gospel status for over 200 years. Notice the false assumption that H. tuberosus was brought to Europe via South America.

In fact, nobody has any evidence that the term girasole articiocco was used by the Italians at any point to refer to H. tuberosus prior to 1807. On the contrary, the term girasole was once used in Italian to descibe the supremely poisonous castor plant (Lacaita, 1919).

Quote 1: Voyages du sieur de Champlain, ou, Journal ès découvertes de la Nouvelle France (1605). This is a first-hand account by Samuel de Champlain speaking of native Americans cultivating roots that had the flavor of artichoke. He is widely agreed to have been referring to H. tuberosus.

Other Uses

The roots of H. tuberosus have been used for the production of biofuels such as ethanol and butanol (with Kluyveromyces marxianus and Saccharomyces cerevisiae) as well as the production of fructose syrup for human consumption, and also the production of cattle feed (citation: Purdue). Jerusalem artichokes can be fermented much like sauerkraut (with Leuconostoc mesenteroides, Lactobacillus brevis, Pediococcus pentosaceus, and/or Lactobacillus plantarum) (citation: NCBI). H. tuberosus is also used for the production of Topi, Topinambur, or Rossler liquors in Germany. It is also used by the American Koval distillery to make a “Sunchoke Spirit.”

Recipes Challenges



…close the door behind you.
Did anyone wearing a fancy ascot or a monicle follow you here?
… marvelous.

Look, I’ve got to level with you. I told you that H. tuberousum is a powerful prebiotic, right? Well, prebiotics are great for you and everything, but there is one slight drawback.

Although healthy and delicious, H. tuberosus WILL MAKE YOU FART LIKE A WATER BUFFALO.

If anyone tells you that they only affect “sensitive individuals,” or those with “delicate stomachs,” they may be trying to sell you some. No-human-body known at this time can break down inulin as a carbon source. So let’s explore the source of these hurricane-force winds.

For intestinal microbes, normal fiber found in foods like broccoli are like Foghat coming to the state fair: there is a general excitement among Foghat fans, but the town-at-large is able to remain calm.

On the other hand, the inulin contained in H. tuberosus is like The Beatles magically reuniting to play a concert in your intestines. Your colonic microflora go berserk when they find out The Beatles are in town and it quickly turns into the best day of their lives. Microbes arrive in droves; they are screaming, crying with joy, getting rich selling bootleg memorabilia for a couple hours, and as a result of all of this activity and enthusiasm: historic flatulence. Yes, no matter how fancy you are, this flatulence will come to you. So what is so exciting about inulin?

Inulin is a member of a class of dietary fibers known as fructans, which are long chains of fructose sugar molecules held together by β(2–1) bonds. β(2–1) bonds are unable to be broken by enzymes in the human digestive tract, leaving the caloric value of fructose under lock and key. That is, until they reach the lower digestive tract (Niness, 1999).

In the intestines, benificial bifidobacteria, laying in wait, readily consume inulin as a food source. As the bifidobacteria multiply, they outcompete pathogenic/harmful microorganisms promoting a revitalized/happy community of microflora in your lower digestive tract that leads to immunological benifits, as well as increased production of B vitamins. That is why inulin is termed a prebiotic, or, a nondigestible food component that promotes the growth and vigor of your intestinal microflora (Niness, 1999).

So, if you are planning on adding H. tuberosus as a part of a dietary “cleanse,” you might want to skip your yoga class that night.


Borror, D. J. (1960). Dictionary of Word Roots and Combining Forms (1st ed.). Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company.

Cosgrove, D. R., Oelke, E. A., Doll, J. D., Davis, D. W., Undersander, D. J., & Oplinger, E. S. (2017, September 27). Jerusalem Artichoke. Retrieved September 27, 2017, from

Helianthus tuberosus. (n.d.). Retrieved September 27, 2017, from

Stapf, O. (Otto)., Prain, D. (David)., Hooker, W. Jackson., Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust., ., Royal Botanic Gardens, K., Bentham-Moxon Trust., ., Royal Horticultural Society (Great Britain), . (1983). Curtis’s botanical magazine. London: Reeve Brothers.

Lacaita, C. C. (1919). XXIV. — The “Jerusalem Artichoke.” . ROYAL BOTANIC GARDENS, KEW, 1919(9), 321–339.

Niness, K. R. (1999). Inulin and Oligofructose: What Are They? The Journal of Nutrition,129(7).

Smith, J. Edward. (1807). An introduction to physiological and systematical botany. London: Longman, Hurst, Reese, Orme, Paternoster Row, White.

Resources to explore

The “Jerusalem Artichoke.” (Helianthus tuberosus.)
 Author(s): C. C. Lacaita
 Source: Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew), Vol. 1919, №9 (1919), pp. 321–339
 Published by: Springer on behalf of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
 Stable URL:
 Accessed: 09–10–2017 03:31 UTC

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  • I am a husband, father, forager, and writer. I’ll recieve my bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in chemistry this fall (CSU-Pueblo).

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