Jerusalem Artichoke, Helianthus tuberosus

Mistaken Identity

Jerusalem artichoke flowers

Helianthus tuberosus

Yellow petals of a Jerusalem artichoke

Wisconsin State Herbarium, © Robert Bierman

Leaves, Stems and Roots

Helianthus tuberosus

Jerusalem artichoke plant

Wisconsin State Herbarium, © Robert W. Freckmann

Globe artichoke,

Cynara scolymus

edible artichoke globe

© VIAs Inc.

This is not a Jerusalem artichoke

None of the plants Lewis compared with the Jerusalem artichoke had any resemblance whatsoever to the now-familiar globe artichoke, Cynara scolymus (SIN-uh-ruh, Greek for "dog's teeth"; SKOL-ee-mus, "pointed").1

The globe artichoke is a member of the thistle branch of the Aster or Daisy family, Asteraceae (ass-ter-AY-see-ee). A native of the Mediterannean coast of North Africa with a long history both as a food and a medicine, the globe artichoke became popular among aristocrats in England and France during the sixteenth century, and was highly regarded among men as an aphrodisiac. The edible part of the plant is its immature flower, which lends the whole plant its common name. It was still essentially unknown in America as a food until after the turn of the 19th century, but is now a familiar item in supermarket vegetable bins, and is still respected for its healthful values. In the U.S. it is cultivated for commercial purposes chiefly near the coast of central California. The word artichoke possibly came from an Arabic word, al-harsuf, which was transformed into the Spanish word alcachofa in the Middle Ages, during the Muslim occupation of Western Europe.

The Jerusalem artichoke differs from the globe artichoke in every detail, with nothing in common but an etymologically misleading name. Noah Webster, in his Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (1806), defined artichoke as "a garden vegetable, a sunflower." He did not include any place-names, so it is not listed under Jerusalem. The latter word, as applied to this vegetable, may be an English corruption (mistranslation-plus-mispronunciation) of the Italian name for sunflower, girasole (jeer-uh-SOH-le). The "Jerusalem artichoke" is also known as a "sunchoke," clearly a union of the first syllable of sunflower with the second of artichoke. The scientific name for the Jerusalem artichoke is Helianthus tuberosus (hel-ee-AN-thus, too-ber-OH-sus), Latin for "sunflower with a lumpy root." It is a member of the Sunflower branch of the family Asteraceae.

The French explorer Samuel de Champlain (1567–1635) found the vegetable growing in Indian gardens along the Saint Lawrence seaway and carried specimens of it back to France in 1603, where its root soon became a staple food for humans, and the rest of it fodder for their livestock. By the late eighteenth century it became a popular vegetable in both Europe and America, though it yielded to the larger potato during the first half of the nineteenth century. Today the sunchoke is found only seasonally among specialty vegetables in markets because it dries out so quickly after it is dug up. The Jerusalem artichoke is easy to tend when grown in an orderly garden, but if one is left in the ground unattended for more than one season it multiplies on its own, and its offspring promptly hit the road to make weeds of themselves.


1. On April 9, 1805, the captains recounted Sacagawea's search for "wild artichokes which the mice collect and deposit in large hoards." The description is confusing, however, and is thought to relate not to Claytonia lanceolata but to the hog peanut, Amphicarpa bracteata (L.) Fernald.

Funded in part by a grant from the Montana Committee for the Humanities