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What is a Jerusalem artichoke?
Miss Arnsdorff's tangerine tree - photo by Photo submitted

Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, describes the Jerusalem artichoke as a sunroot or sunchoke, a derivative of the sunflower plant. The herbaceous perennial grows tall, five to 10 feet high.  It is native to North America, cultivated by the Indians and Pilgrims, and is primarily a weed of pastures, hayfields and roadsides from Maine west to North Dakota and south to northern Florida and Texas. It is cultivated as a crop for its root or tuber, which is a vegetable.  

They have a crisp texture when raw resembling ginger roots or gnarled potatoes and range in size up to that of a kiwi. This vegetable stores the carbohydrate inulin (not insulin) which is not starch. They are an important source of fructose for industry. Cultivated from pieces of the root, even a very tiny piece of the tuber will produce a plant and easily become prolific. They are not good boiled and can be eaten steamed but are mainly used in pickle or relish.

The plants have leaves with a rough hairy texture and have yellow flower heads about the size of a small sunflower or daisy.  The tuber varies in color from pale brown to white and range to red or purple in some areas.

Why was this plant that is not really an artichoke called Jerusalem? sleuths have concluded that when Jerusalem artichokes arrived in Italy sometime before 1633, the Italian word for sunflower, “girasole,” which means “turning to the sun,” was somehow later corrupted into the word "Jerusalem." This error combined with French Explorer Champlain's likening the taste of the vegetable to an artichoke, on his visit to America in 1605, brings the mystery to a close.

The following was written by May C. Exley, wife of the late Barnard R. Exley and his daughter, Julia E. Rahn:  
Jerusalem artichokes were planted in Effingham County by Barnard R. Exley and other farmers to make pickles and as a “cash crop” for farmers.  The top of the plant has many small yellow flowers resembling little sunflowers among tall green leafy foliage.  The root is the part of the plant that was harvested for use. It was hard with many “knobs” of different shapes and sizes. The outside of the root was brown and the inside creamy white. The first seed artichokes planted by Barnard were purchased from North Carolina.  

He later got some from Hilliard, Fla. The seed was an artichoke with an “eye” that would sprout and make a plant. Artichokes were planted in the ground in the spring and gathered in early fall before a hard freeze, which would ruin them, with a shovel and pitchfork from the earth.  

Cleaned by hand, local hired black women in the area would get them ready for market.  They removed the fine roots and other trash that had grown around them.  After being washed clean and allowed to dry, they were bagged in burlap bags. The artichokes were taken to Statesboro and sold to Braswell and Company. Mr. Braswell had a processing plant that made artichoke pickle and relish.  Braswell is still in operation today with many products available for sale.  

People in the area grew rows of artichokes in their gardens for family use. Women in the area would “pickle” the artichokes as well as make relish. It is a delicacy as it takes a lot of preparation to prepare the artichokes to be eaten. They make a pretty display if you take the time to clean all of the brown off the root before pickling. Local women were competitive with the cleaning of the artichoke, seeing who could produce the “whitest” pickle. The Exley family enjoyed the relish with vegetables and even on the buns with their hot dogs.

Many thanks to 92-year-old Miss Nellie Arnsdorff for showing the plant growing in her yard and a jar of pickles from her pantry.   

This article edited and compiled by Susan Exley of Historic Effingham Society.  If you have questions, comments or photos to share call her at 754-6681 or email: