THE “POTATO OF CANADA ” – A PLANT HISTORY (June 27/06)

Many years ago a friend asked if I wanted to try some roots from a plant growing wild near his vegetable garden. “People have been eating these roots for hundreds of years,” he said. “You boil them like you would a potato.”

The plant he dug up to collect the roots looked like a sunflower but the friend said it wasn’t. “Related to the sunflower maybe,” he said, “and it’s got a funny name, Jerusalem artichoke.”

An edible wild plant that looked like a sunflower, had a mysterious name, and was harvested for generations by everyone from the Mi’kmaq on? Let me tell you that I was hooked immediately on that wild plant with the odd name. The friend needn’t have added it was connected with early French explorers and a wild Canadian plant was widely cultivated in Europe at one time, but this revelation further increased my fascination with it.

Today I have a slim file of information on the Jerusalem artichoke, which I’ve been compiling since being introduced to it. I learned some interesting things, like the origin of its name and the fact that French explorers took the plant from Canada to France where it became widely used and played a minor role in agricultural history. Once, French peasants rose up in rebellion over taxation of the vegetables they cultivated, claiming the popular Jerusalem artichoke should be exempt on grounds that it matured with little or no care.

One of the first things I discovered was that the plant is a cousin of the sunflower and not related to the artichoke. Nor does it come from Jerusalem. In the History and Social Influence of the Potato (1949) Redcliffe Salaman lumps the Jerusalem artichoke with various root crops that once were common in 17th and 18th century marketplaces of Europe.

The plant is native to Canada. The French explorers Champlain and Lescarbot found Indians cultivating it as a food and decided to take it home. The Jerusalem artichoke reached France circa 1607 and within a decade was being grown in England. Salaman says it was received “in court circles in France with much enthusiasm” and was soon common in the marketplace. Unfortunately it was competing with another relatively new tuber, the potato, which was found to be more acceptable in the kitchen, easier to cultivate and more edible.

There’s a bit of mystery on how and when the plant, which grows wild here, reached Nova Scotia. In his book Acadia: The Geography of Nova Scotia to 1760, Andrew Hill Clarke in a footnote regarding the Mi’kmaq use of the wild potato and wild carrots observes: “Neither of the Helianthes (sunflower or Jerusalem artichoke), which are commonly seen in the Nova Scotia countryside today, seem to have been present in the 17th century.”

While it was eventually spurned by the French peasantry and their British counterparts in favour of the potato, use of the Jerusalem artichoke eventually spread throughout Europe and beyond. There are two theories on how its name arose. One is that it’s a corruption of the Italian Girasola articiocco, meaning the sunflower artichoke, another that a Dutchman named Ter-Heusen was a major distributor of the tuber throughout Europe in the 17th century and his name, modified to Jerusalem, was applied to the plant. Because the French brought them first from Canada the tuber was once known at “potatoes of Canada” and the “Canadian potato.”

They’re scarce but you can find the Jerusalem artichoke growing wild here today; if you happen to harvest the roots, you’ll find they have a peculiar flavour and are a bit sooty but complement beef and wild fowl. Locally, at least one wild food enthusiast cultivates them for the table.

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