A very hairy, tall, much-branching perennial, often occurring in dense colonies. Flowerheads sunflowers, with 12–20 ray florets, to 3 inches across, frequently with a distinct chocolate scent. Blooms August–October. Leaves with winged petioles, lance-shaped, coarsely toothed, to 9 inches long, prominently 3-veined, rough and hairy above, downy below. Roots potato-like, edible tubers.
Similar species: This species hybridizes with other sunflowers, making identification difficult. Not counting hybrids, there are 16 species of Helianthus recorded for Missouri. This species is perhaps best identified by its leaves, which are mostly opposite, but alternate in the upper third of the plant; also that the leaves are long, lanceolate, 3-veined, coarsely toothed, long-tapered at the base with winged petioles, and rough-hairy above, downy below.
For an overview of Missouri’s sunflowers, visit their group page.
Height: 7–12 feet.
Scattered to common throughout the state.
Habitat and Conservation
Banks of streams, rivers, and spring branches, bottomland forests, rich upland forests, sloughs, margins of ponds and lakes, and moist depressions of upland prairies; also pastures, fencerows, railroads, roadsides, and disturbed areas. Jerusalem artichoke is not an artichoke, nor is it from Jerusalem. The name is likely a corruption of the Italian “girasole” (sunflower). This plant is not from the Middle East: It is native to North America, including Missouri.
Cultivated worldwide for its edible tubers and as livestock feed. Its sweet storage carbohydrate, inulin, is not absorbed in our digestive tracts, thus it is extracted and used commercially in yogurts and other foods as a diabetic-friendly fat substitute and bulking agent. In the 1980s Jerusalem artichoke was promoted as a crop for ethanol production (the way corn ethanol is grown now), but the owners of the company behind this scheme were ultimately prosecuted as con artists.
The crisp, fleshy tubers are edible and taste something like nuts and artichokes. They can be eaten raw, cooked, or pickled. They have strong potential as a pollinator-friendly specialty crop. Native gardening enthusiasts point out that you can control the spread of these flowers by harvesting them as food.
Native Americans cultivated the plant, and it was a fashionable food in Europe in the 1600s. Sunchokes, hybrids with annual sunflower, were quite popular in the 1980s.
Sunflowers provide nectar and pollen to a great variety of insects, plus a hunting ground for spiders, assassin bugs, and other predators of the many insects attracted to the flowers. When the flowers are spent, birds and mammals, including finches and rodents, relish the sunflower seeds.