A sunflower with an image problem

Jerusalem artichoke

Ferdinand Vietz, Icones Plantarum 1800-1822

When is an artichoke not an artichoke?
When it’s a sunflower!
Unfortunately a totally inappropriate vernacular is the least of the problems of the Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus).
It  has a reputation as a garden thug and according to the gardener John Goodyer, the 17th century gardener and botanist,  quoted  in Gerard’s Herbal “Jerusalem artichokes: which way soever they be dressed and eaten, they stir and cause a filthy loathsome stinking wind within the body, thereby causing the belly to be pained and tormented, and are a meat more fit for swine than men.”
So we have a plant that is not an artichoke and not from the Middle East but a sunflower from North America with a bad reputation. The misnomer has two apparent sources, a corruption of the European name (girasole) and an assertion from the French explorer, who sent the first samples to France, that its taste was similar to an artichoke. Unfortunately its thuggish reputation is well deserved, as once you decide to grow it, it can be difficult to remove. Even if every small tuber is removed, any remaining tuberous nodules or section of  rhizome will produce a nice crop of small shoots the following spring. If you quarantine the bed and keep digging it will eventually disappear but perhaps not before, in despair and desperation, you’ve reached for the glyphosate .
On the positive side, it is easy to grow, disease resistant and will continue to crop well provided that you keep the soil fertile. I grow it in a contained bed between the compost and the rhubarb, with a path on one side and the hedge on the other. It is sheltered from the prevailing winds and can’t escape. Each year I retain a handful of the large tubers for replanting in the spring, although there are always some left in the ground to keep the crop going, and dig in some manure and seaweed. I do nothing else until I start to harvest the crop in December. Unfortunately it has never produced any flowers, but that is possibly because I’m so far north.
As for its reputation for causing flatulence, well that results from the activities of the  bacteria which inhabit the human intestines. Jerusalem artichoke tubers store carbohydrate in the form of inulin, rather than starch, which the human digestive system is unable to break down. However, some bacteria can digest it and a diet which contains inulin (also present in other vegetables such as asparagus, leeks, garlic, bananas) is considered by some to help maintain a healthy intestinal biota. The composition of the bacteria found in the human intestinal system varies between individuals and some people are more sensitive than others to the bacterial fermentation of inulin. So some of us can eat Jerusalem artichokes with impunity and others prefer to avoid the discomfort and the risk of embarrassment in polite company. It is probably wise not to over-feed your friendly bacteria with large portions of Jerusalem artichokes, the secret seems to be a little and often.
On the positive side they’re nutritious; rich in iron, potassium and vitamin B1, with a low glycemic index and they aren’t fattening. They have a deliciously nutty, slightly earthy, aromatic flavour and can can be roasted or pan-fried, pureed, baked into a gratin, or used raw (thinly sliced) in a salad. Perhaps the easiest way to start is with a small helping of rich creamy soup. You’ll find a recipe in the Croft Kitchen with some suggestions on how to help ameliorate the side-effects of over active friendly bacteria.


Surving the wulf-monath and the return of Pollyanna and the muse

winter beachJanuary, a time for new beginnings and transition, derives its name Ianuarius from the Latin word for door (ianua) and not necessarily from the Roman god Janus. I also like the alternative Saxon name of Wulf-monath, which conjures a much more northern vision of the cold, hard, first month of the year.
Here on the island January exhibited both these characteristics, as two-faced as Janus himself. It has been cold, dark and stormy, but being housebound provides time for planning and looking forward. This year the planning has involved rather more than a perusal of the seed catalogues. We are coming to the end of our “ten-year plan” and after eight years on the croft the outcome has been very different from our first naive visions.  However, we are more than content with our achievements, but complacency isn’t our style and it is time to look forward.
Last year we didn’t grow any main-crop potatoes, primarily because we have a fungal disease in the soil which makes it a waste of time and we don’t eat enough potatoes to justify the effort of growing them in another part of the croft. So I left a couple of my vegetable beds fallow. drying onionsWe usually have a good crop of onions and shallots, but because our season is so short it is almost impossible to ripen and dry the bulbs; consequently after a couple of months in storage they begin to rot. So it was not a difficult decision to stop growing onions, particularly as I had been looking for a suitable space to grow more herbs and bulbs.
This was start of the realisation that it was time to think about beginning to change my gardening habits as the heavy labour involved in vegetable gardening gets heavier and heavier as the years progress. This is not an easy fact to come to terms with, but on balance it seems to be easier to adapt slowly rather than to have a major change imposed and to be unable to implement an alternative strategy. Fortunately my inner Polyanna came to the rescue and provided visions of exciting new projects and a little retail therapy with the bulb catalogues did the rest.
All was rosy in the garden in November; the winter tasks complete and the mild weather had given the winter crops in the polytunnel a good start. I suppose it was too optimistic to hope that the jet stream wouldn’t meander south and subject us to the usual mid-winter storms. Predictably, just before Christmas, the weather changed and storms Barbara and Conor arrived. The rest is history, by Boxing Day the polytunnel was missing two roof panels and those in the western gable end were starting to tear.storm damageOver the next few days, tools, pots and assorted gardening odds and ends were re-housed, the over-wintering plants were evacuated and placed in intensive care, and the casualties put on the compost or in the recycling bin. The onions, garlic, carrots, coriander and parsley were covered with a double layer of enviromesh, a desperate effort to rescue something, particularly as the spinach, beetroot and winter salads had perished.
My inner Pollyanna was remarkably quiet for a few days – probably skipped off with my muse to the Bahamas, a likely pair of flibbertigibbets!  Fortunately the Head Gardener was around to encourage me to be pragmatic, switch into strategic planning mode, do the risk assessments, analyse the options and see if there was any money left in the piggybank. So after shaking the piggy bank, searching down the back of the sofas and going through all the coat pockets, I’ve scraped together just enough to repair the polytunnel and finance its eventual replacement. So there is a new plan on the drawing board and I’m looking at the future of the vegetable and cottage gardens from a slightly different perspective. Although everything in the garden is not quite as rosy as it was, Pollyanna and the muse are back, I’m perusing the seed catalogues and as soon as it stops blowing, raining and or snowing I’ll be back in the garden.

Beyond all things is the sea

November North Loch Eynort, South Uist

November North Loch Eynort, South Uist

It does good also to take walks out-of-doors, that our spirits may be raised and refreshed by the open air and fresh breeze: sometimes we gain strength by driving in a carriage, by travel, by change of air, or by social meals and a more generous allowance of wine.

This year I have been taking Seneca’s sage advice and taking some time off to explore our beautiful archipelago with  its diverse landscapes and wildlife,  and spending time with family and friends both here and on the mainland.  So the paucity of blogs has more to do with a designed intention to spend more time discovering the secrets of our lovely islands and remembering to enjoy the company of some very special people,  than working hard in the garden and on the croft.
The excellent weather we enjoyed during the summer lasted well into the autumn and throughout October into November.  Under the more benign influence of La Niña, the autumn equinoctial gales were limited to one huff and puff of wind. With high pressure and a northerly airflow we revelled in some glorious calm clear days, our spirits rising in the sharp, crisp, crystalline air. We awoke to rosy dawns and watched the late afternoon sun sink into the sea gilding the clouds and leaving a soft after glow.
Between long walks on our favourite beaches we managed to get almost all the autumn chores completed. The bulbs were planted, vegetable beds and flower borders top dressed with seaweed, the tussock grass around the house cut – it will never qualify as a “lawn” but cutting and raking keeps the rampant grasses in check leaving space for the wildflowers. So in theory we could look forward to plenty of time for bracing winter excursions.
Ever the optimist, I’d not included storms Barbara and Conor in my plans. So once again we’re being battered by storm force winters and will be confined to the house for the Christmas period again! The contingency plans for a stormy Christmas and New Year are almost becoming routine, fortunately I do not have to worry about the imminent arrival of Super Typhoon Nock-Ten.
We’ve had a lovely 2016 and are looking forward to 2017 with excitement and anticipation. The world is  a very troubled place and we are very fortunate to live on a peaceful and beautiful island, even if it’s a bit blustery.

Wishing you all a Happy Christmas and New Year.

Christmas primroses

Primroses in December