Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Don't Choke on My Chorogi - Stachys sieboldii

When is an artichoke not an artichoke? When it's either Helianthus tuberosus or Stachys sieboldii. The former is the Jerusalem artichoke, neither from Jerusalem, nor an artichoke, although like its namesake, it is a member of the daisy family; the latter is the Chinese artichoke, which does occur in China, but is actually a member of the mint family, the Lamiaceae, rather than an artichoke sensu stricto; true artichokes are naught but overgrown thistles in the genus Cynara. These are Chinese artichokes, freshly lifted. I wonder whether they were the inspiration for the Michelin man?

So the Chinese artichoke isn't an artichoke, but it does come from China - so far, so good. It's a woundwort, Stachys sieboldii, bearing typical woundwort style lanceolate leaves with toothed edges and small spikes of purplish flowers. A common synonym is Stachys affinis. It wouldn't look out of place at the base of a hedge somewhere - let's call its charms rustic and understated; others have referred to it as an invasive brute. Oh and it's also found in Japan where it's known as chorogi and in France where it is called Crosnes du Japon, after the village to which it was introduced from Japan in 1882.

It's simple enough to grow and seems to be a survivor; reasonable soil and sufficient moisture are what's needed for a good crop. Go easy on the nitrogen or you end up with excessive foliage. Last year I rescued a couple of tubers from a friend's garden where they had been growing untended for about ten years - volunteers from a crop I planted there. They got a bit of a bear hug from the mashuas late last year, but despite near total asphyxiation, I've still got a few to replant this spring.

I first became acquainted with this plant in my teens, when I bought a handful from a Chinese greengrocer in London. I loved their maggoty appearance and although I planted most of them, I got to cook a few. They had a nice sweet, nutty sort of flavour and a pleasant texture. I boiled them, although they are often pickled in China; in Japan they're eaten at New Year, again in a pickled form. I've got a bit more sophisticated lately - I often drop them into miso soup where they add both visual and gustatory appeal. That sweet taste comes from stachyose, an oligosaccharide they contain. This is supposed to help feed the bacteria in the gut, with the usual attendant health benefits. Maybe they could be described as "yacon lite". They are also edible raw.

Many people are familiar with the "Three Sisters" concept of multicropping, consisting of maize, beans and squash planted in groups. The post modern version of this is, apparently, the "Three Brothers", a polyculture planting of Jerusalem artichoke, Chinese artichoke and hopniss (Apios americana). I've yet to try this method, but it sounds like it could be fun. The Jerusalem artichoke provides stems for the hopniss to climb up, whilst the Chinese artichoke proliferates into a weedy mass of growth at the base, suppressing all comers - so runs the theory. At harvest time you get a pick and mix of three different different root crops. My experiences with the Three Sisters method have never been very successful, being more like a game of scissors, paper, stone, with one of the three crops overwhelming the others; my guess is that this technique is dependent on suitable varietal selection for success. It's possible that Jerusalem and Chinese artichokes with hopniss might be more successful, as all three are, in their own ways, very vigorous.


Talking of varietal selection, it seems that Chinese artichokes follow the example of the Model T Ford - you can have any variety you want, just as long as it's the standard one. I do recall seeing some tubers for sale that seemed to have a purplish tinge to the emerging shoots, but this may have been a stress response rather than an indication of genetic variability. So we're limited to just the one variety in Europe, as far as I can tell.

The National Institute of Horticulture (INH) in Angers, France had a stab at breeding the plants back in 1980s and 90s, but I don't know what progress was made. What they did show was that plants are capable of producing viable seeds. That's good, because in order to escape that most hateful of designations, "minor" root crop, some serious work needs to be done on increasing the dimensions of the tubers. In the world of root crops, size matters. Those of a squeamish nature may recoil, but I would also be interested in seeing whether the judicious application of colchicine might induce chromosome doubling and lead to bigger tubers. Anything much smaller than thumb size is never going to endear itself to the phyto-philistines out there, so it really is necessary to pump them up a bit.

I propose we set up a Chinese artichoke improvement group to get hold of some more Stachys sieboldii germplasm, then cross them indiscriminately and select the progeny for tuber size and yield. Call it recurrent mass selection if you like, just as long as you get on with it.

17 comments:

Emma said...

They're still on my list of things to try (too little space, too many plants!), but the Three Brothers sounds interesting so thanks for blogging about that :D

IAP said...

I have thought in the past of growing them, but dismissed them as probably being too fiddly to harvest and clean. Nowadays I judge a crop on more than just it's belly-filling efficiency, so perhaps I will give it a go. I have my doubts about the three brother system – Jerusalem artichokes (JAs) suck a huge amount of water out of the soil, so that here in the south east of the UK anyway, by mid Summer no weeds can make a living at their feet. Perhaps using rows rather than blocks it would work, or in a wetter climate than I experience.
I had resolved not to grow JAs again this year. I'd rather use the space for aesthetically and culinarily superior crops that have come into my life recently such as yacon and oca

Rhizowen said...

Hi Emma

If you try the three brothers, let me know how you get on. One of the smaller Jerusalem artichoke varieties would be best I would imagine. I used to have Dwarf Sunray, which is a nice short plant that flowers every year. I wonder whether it's still around?

Hi Ian
The fiddliness depends on soil type. Heavy clay and Chinese artichokes are not a good combination, at least from the human point of view. A nice sandy loam would make the tubers easier to clean. They do like reasonable moisture levels, so drought stricken parts of the south east may be more challenging. Rows rather than hills might be worth trying. My suggestion would be the "Four cousins" - add hog peanut to create a totally unholy mass of tangled foliage - at least the hopniss and hog peanut are cousins in a botanical sense and both fix nitrogen, or do away with the artichokes, plant maize in their place , and grow oca instead of the Chinese artichokes - the permutations are endless! I think you already know that.......

Chris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
trixtrax said...

I would imagine the chinese seashells would get trapped into the grooves of the sunchokes and maybe cause rot? I have something similar happen when sunchokes are planted near reed canary grass or quack grass the grass runner roots plunge in between the grooves and sometimes even through the roots. I think hog peanut and sunchokes would pair well. Maybe Helianthus strumosus or a perennial species with more space between tubers would work better. I have found that yield of Stachys is increased when interplanted with salad mallow (Malva verticullata crispa). The tubers were slightly larger and more numerous, clustered around the roots of the mallow. The interplanted mallow's roots were slightly larger than non-interplanted plants, but otherwise the mallow seemed relatively unaffected. Also, a Mentha specimen (spearmint I think it was) in a past garden seemed to possibly have been deterred by its sunchoke neighbor, but I would have to check this a bit more rigorously.

I had good results with Stachys on a raised bed that was prepared with well-aged horse manure that was sitting atop a spot of the garden, in full sun, and a high-ish watertable most of the year.

Mark said...

For those worried about knobbly roots, I noticed that Frank van Keirsblick mentions Helianthus strumosus a relative of sunchoke. This has non-knobbly tubers, and supposedly the Fuseau variety is a hybrid of sunchoke and H.strumosus.
Regarding the Three Sisters methods and variations thereof. I imagine there could be book to be made of what the numbers of possible suitable variations of crops type are. And maybe a prize for the most productive garden with the maximum number of species. It would be fun to try.

Found another root I had never heard of, it is called Spignel or Baldmoney (Meum athamanticum - Apiaceae. Rhizowen, have you tried it?

www.CarpeDiem-living.de said...

Stachys is growing since 3 years in my garden. It is a delikatess. It grows very invasiv.
Stir-fry one Allium and Stachys in a pan translucent.
Then take tomato and Cucumis in the warm pan. Give herbs and stock in the pan an eat warm possible with Mozzarella.
Stachys is not easy to wash, but very easy growing ang excellent tast.
I belive Heliantus tuberosus is growing very big, and possible Stachys don't like ist.
I believe, they could press themselves much.

I would write gladly more, but my English is too bad.

Rhizowen said...

Hi trixtrax, thanks for stopping by and adding your comment. salad mallow is a good plant, although I have to confess that I haven't grown it for years now. Interesting that you are experiencing a yield (and size) increase when mallow and Chinese artichokes are grown together. You mention that the mallow roots get larger when planted with the artichokes - could you elaborate?

CarpeDiem -danke für Ihre Anmerkungen. Don't worry about your English, please continue to make your very useful contributions. I like the idea of Chinese artichokes/ seashells cooked as you describe. They are delicious anyway, but mozzarella can only make them better.

Hi Mark
I think you may well be right - something like Helianthus strumosus or Fuseau with smooth tubers might make the harvest less tedious - less washing and scrubbing - they'll be plenty of that to do with the Chinese artichokes.

Spignel - I know the plant, found in calcareous grasslands, generally in the north of UK. I've never eaten the root, although I know it's supposed to be quite nice - sort of parsnip like (is that the umbelliferous equivalent of "tastes like chicken"?). I would guess that yields would be quite low, but might improve under cultivation. Seeds and plants are available, so it would be worth growing to ascertain its potential.

trixtrax said...

Mark - There are something like 16 species of perennial Helianthus. Some species cluster their tubers while other are "more open." Fuseau is a good var., I did not know it was a hybrid. I suspect a var like Fuseau, that does not cluster and has few if any knobs would work best.

Rhizowen - Thank you. Elaborating on the mallow roots. I found the mallow's root to be more developed (of a larger size) when interplanted with the Stachys. The Stachys tubers were also slightly larger and definately more numerous - tending to cluster around the spikes of the mallow root. A sure sign they were a-workin'-together.

rafael said...

Thanks for the post, and the site. lots of great stuff. We seem to have two varieties of chinese artichoke now (im in aus), one have from USA grocer and a local one, and they have slightly different leaves but we'll have to wait for the roots, the american one is a bit weak so we haven't eaten any yet...

we have a kind of three brothers with apios, chinese artichoke and edible canna! though again american artichoke is not doing too well, could be the intense shade from the canna... apios is loving it though and seems to be coming up randomly metres from where i planted it.

Rhizowen said...

Hi rafael - thanks for the comments.

Interesting that you have two different cultivars of Chinese artichoke. Check out the flowers, assuming they do flower and look out for seeds. Then if you've got any spare....

I don't know what part of Australia you're in, but I'm surprised the Jerusalem artichoke isn't doing so well. Where did you get your apios from?

Sanctufilm said...

Very interesting and learned look at this plant. We are taping a public access cooking show and will be mentioning the crosne, but would like a couple of your stills to go with the narration (properly credited, of course). To what address do we write for permission?

Rhizowen said...

Sanctufilm - thanks for the comment. I'm happy for you to use my photos. Send me your email address and I'll get back to you.

rafael said...

haven't seen many flowers yet... will look out for seed! they definitely seem to be different cultivars though, consistently different appearance and growth over a long time and in a few situations.

it was the chinese artichoke that wame from US thats consistently a bit weak... jerusalems grow madly here, just harvested a few buckets full from one small patch of five starts.

i got the apios from ebay, which is surprisingly one of the best ways of getting rare perennial edibles in au. its probably an unimproved variety, very long connections between small tubers...

Rhizowen said...

rafael - if you get both varieties to flower at the same time, then it might be possible to get true seed. Exciting! In what ways do they differ?

Julien said...

If you go at that time of the year, you can kick the bucket but that's worth the mud :D

What's better comfort than a frying pan and chinese artichoke ?

Its european counterpart, Stachys palustris, seem to have been harvested from the wild in the past. Some say it's productive too and I need to verify it. After all, Stachys affinis went through selection in Asia, resulting in a poor tendency to flowering, at least for mine. At least, we could hope yields to be fairly higher than simple, wild material.

Darren Abbey said...

There seem to be some related species (S. floridana, S. hyssopifolia, and S. palustris) that also have tubers and might be good sources of genetic variation through hybridization.

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