Robert M. Harveson, Extension Plant Pathologist
Panhandle R&E Center, Scottsbluff
Many readers are at the least familiar with the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s and its crucial role in shaping world history. It is estimated that Ireland’s population was reduced by up to one-third due to starvation and immigration during this period. Many of these people fled to North America, settling in both the United States and Canada, which also decidedly influenced the history of both nations.
The actual cause and effect of the famine in Ireland was due to a myriad of factors, including bigotry against the Irish people, bureaucratic obstacles, and poor political and governmental decisions. However, the famine was additionally driven in large part by the devastating potato disease, late blight, caused by Phytophthora infestans.
The Potato Migrates to Europe
The potato is thought to have been introduced into Europe from the New World by the Spanish around 1570, and to Britain sometime between the late 1580s and the early 1590s. Its arrival into England has been commonly credited to either Sir Francis Drake or Thomas Harriot, an employee of Sir Walter Raleigh. The plant found its way to Ireland, where it was first planted on Raleigh’s estate.
Although potatoes eventually became the staple food for the Irish people, it took some time before they were accepted. This is due to several factors. Rumors of its poisonous nature and being related to other well-known toxic members of this plant family such as belladonna and nightshade were commonplace. Furthermore, irrational superstitions spread rapidly throughout Europe that potatoes were transmitters of leprosy and other feared diseases.
However, did you know that another New World plant was introduced into Europe about 20 years after the potato that could have displaced the potato as the starchy vegetable of choice in Europe? This brief article will present the narrative of this little-known crop, the Jerusalem artichoke.
The Jerusalem artichoke, Helianthus tuberosus, also referred to as the sunchoke, was an important food plant for Native Americans for centuries prior to the arrival of the Europeans. The French explorer Samuel de Champlain reportedly found this plant being cultivated Cape Cod in 1605. The plant reaches heights of 10 feet or more, and was grown for its edible large fleshy roots.
The genus name comes from the Greek words helios meaning sun and anthos meaning flower, similar to its cousin, the sunflower. The specific epithet name tuberosus is Latin, meaning tuberous, in reference to the edible underground tubers.
Although the roots are said to taste like the artichoke, it is not a form of artichoke, and has no connection to the city in Israel. The origin of the name “Jerusalem” is still uncertain but thought to be derived from the Italian name for the plant - girasole articiocco, with Jerusalem likely being a mispronunciation of girasole.
Emerging in Europe
Tubers were brought to Europe, where they rapidly attained popularity, particularly in France among the aristocracy. Gardening in French culture was a sign of prestige and nobility. After its adoption first by the royalty, it became fashionable and available to everyone, thus enhancing its reputation. When word got out, it quickly spread throughout the continent, becoming a common vegetable food crop by 1650.
Sunchoke loses favor
After most herbalists began to denigrate the plant in the late 17th century, the Jerusalem artichoke lost its appeal, in large part due to its natural tendency to cause gastric indigestion and flatulence. Unlike potatoes, sunchoke tubers do not contain starch; they contain an insoluble sugar called inulin. Humans lack the digestive enzymes that will completely breakdown inulin. Thus much of the inulin is still present in undigested food when it reaches the colon, where resident bacteria convert it to the more digestible sugar, fructose. As a result, various gasses are produced in this process of digestion.
Despite these complications associated with human consumption, the plant has still been employed commercially in the production of fructose and as a source of industrial alcohol. The Soviets were also reputedly successful in securing and transmitting disease resistance into cultivated sunflowers through the use of hybrids derived from the Jerusalem artichoke.
At one time it was even thought that it might rival the sugar beet as another temperate but perennial source of sugar after being hybridized with the common sunflower.
I have always been fascinated with virtual history and the conjecturing of “what if” scenarios, on how historical events might have been altered if certain circumstances had proceeded in different directions. In my opinion the Irish Potato Famine and the Jerusalem artichoke provide an excellent and instructive example of this idea.
Had the sunchoke become adopted as the staple food in Europe, some historians have questioned whether the devastating potato famine in the 1840s could have been averted, thereby reshaping the destiny and history of Ireland and subsequently, the rest of the world.