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.