The US Postal Service and a Jerusalem impostor

(The sunflower and the Jerusalem artichoke; August 2007)

Like the chatzav of the previous article, another recent event brings to mind two plants with an Israeli identity crisis. Before the last US postal rate increase, the Postal Service issued a series of 39-cent stamps with the title “Crops of the Americas.” The stamps, no longer available, featured beautiful, detailed artwork of such native American crops as corn (maize) and sunflowers. As its scientific name suggests, the sunflower (Helianthus annuum) is an annual plant: It grows each year from seed, produces its own seeds, and dies. A close relative of this plant is the Jerusalem artichoke, or sunchoke, The Jerusalem artichoke is a perennial: It lives for more than one year, producing new shoots each spring from its swollen, potato-like root, or tuber, mentioned in its scientific name, Helianthus tuberosum.

How did this American sunflower become known as a Jerusalem artichoke? The French explorer Samuel de Champlain may have been the first European to taste this root on a visit to Cape Cod in 1605. He is reported to have thought they tasted like artichokes, and sent some back to France, where they became popular. In Italy, they were sold as roots of sunflowers, or in Italian, “girasole,” a name that refers to the tendency of the large flower to turn, or gyre, to follow the sun (“sol”) as it moves across the sky each day.

So, the name Jerusalem artichoke is actually a European confusion caused by a Frenchman’s taste in vegetables and an Italian name that sounded like ‘Jerusalem.’ Ironically, seeds of the annual sunflower have become so popular as snacks in Israel that they are referred to simply as ‘garinim’ (seeds).

Stephen Druger wrote to report that the Italian name for Jerusalem is ‘Gerusalemme’, which could easily have been confused with ‘girosolum,’ a descriptive name for this plant that refers to its tendency to track the movement of the sun throughout the day.

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