As an ethnobotanist, I am forever fascinated by how we have come to eat the crops we do. Despite there being an estimated 50,000 edible plant species on Earth, most of us exist on the harvests from fewer than 100 species, meaning we are missing out on 99.8% of the options available. In fact, 60% of the calories that fuel humanity come from the seeds of just three grass species: wheat, rice and corn. Having grown and tasted hundreds of these alternative edibles, I can confirm that there are sometimes very good reasons why some just haven’t been popularised. “Edible”and “tasty” are often different things. However, once in a while there is an example of a crop that ticks all the boxes, yet remains totally undervalued. The Jerusalem artichoke is probably the easiest and most rewarding vegetable crop around – and now is a great time to get ordering them.

Hailing from the Americas, these hardy, high-yielding crops are close relatives of sunflowers – so neither artichokes, nor from Jerusalem. Their potato-like tubers are produced in abundance in the late autumn. Rich in starch, they have a similar taste and texture to potatoes, so can be used in all the same ways, albeit with a richer, nuttier flavour. They also contain large amounts of a prebiotic sugar known as inulin, which gives them a sweet flavour and slightly slippery, smooth texture. Curiously, inulin is indigestible to humans, which means it essentially contains zero calories and acts like fibre, yet it is a key food source for friendly gut bacteria, which means it can boost gut health. Full disclosure: this very property is also responsible for a side effect noted in some people, resulting in the crop’s (affectionate) nickname of “fartichokes”. So go easy if trying them for the first time.

Of similar yield and versatility to spuds, Jerusalem artichokes tend to be a rarer find in the shops, usually sold at a premium at high-end supermarkets – a fact I always find surprising, as they are much easier to grow than potatoes. The plants are hardy perennials, so once established you won’t need to keep buying and planting them every year. And they are largely unaffected by pests – something that can’t be said for potatoes.

To harvest, general advice is simply to cut down their stems once the leaves have been blackened by frost and remove two-thirds of the tubers, leaving a third in the ground to grow next year. However, having made a concerted effort to dig every last one out in one patch, I can confirm that no matter how many you remove there is always plenty left to grow the next year, so I wouldn’t take the whole “rule of thirds” as gospel.

A tasty potato substitute that’s far easier to grow, expensive to buy, novel to eat and may come with health benefits – that’s a rare combination. So if you are up for something new, trial them this year. But maybe avoid eating too many the night before a first date.

Follow James on Twitter @Botanygeek

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