I have been fascinated in recent years with two very useful edible herbaceous perennials that are close relatives of the sunflower, Jerusalem artichoke (or sunchoke) and yacon.
The Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) is rather well known but the other one which I was given under the name Yacon has proven even more productive under my conditions.
The Jerusalem artichoke also goes by other names such sunroot and sunchoke and originates from the easten regions of North America from Canada to Florida and was cultivated by the American Indians as a food crop.
The Yacon seems to go by a variety of other common names such as Peruvian ground apple, Apple of the Earth, Bolivian sunroot amongst others as well as several botanical names, including (Smallanthus sonchifolius, Polymnia edulis and Polymnia sonchifolia). Take your pick! As its common names suggest, it originates in South America in the Andes and has been used as a food plant by the indigenous peoples there for centuries.
Both plants grow readily from tubers that reach maximum size as the plants die back during the autumn. The tubers can be used either to multiply the plants or as interesting and flavoursome vegetables for the family table. Tip cuttings can also be taken when the tubers sprout in spring if you are needing to build up numbers. Good drainage and a reasonable supply of nutrients and moisture have given me bumper harvests from both species.
I use both plants for stir fries and as boiled vegetables but the best way I have found to cook them is by baking them in the coals of an open fire (although I am sure they would go equally well in a roast dinner also). Yacon has a somewhat sweet flavour in contrast to the nutty taste of the Jerusalem artichoke and both are reputed to encourage flatulence and one is left to wonder whether they could also be used as an alternative energy source of methane….
In addition to their edibility, both plants can also double as ornamental plants. Use them at the back of a perennial border or anywhere else in the garden that a 1.5 to 2 metre high yellow flowering daisy will fill a space. Be careful though, as once introduced to a spot they will make it their own and tend to take over.